XV

Banner of Light⁠—​Messages from the dead⁠—​Spiritual civilities⁠—​Spirit “hollering”⁠—​Hans von Vleet, the female Dutchman⁠—​Mrs. Conant’s “circles”⁠—​Paine’s table-tipping humbug exposed.

The Banner of Light, a weekly journal of romance, literature, and general intelligence, published in Boston, is the principal organ of spiritualism in this country. Its “general intelligence” is rather questionable, though there is no doubt about its being a “journal of romance,” strongly tinctured with humbug and imposture. It has a “Message Department,” the proprietors of the paper claiming that “each message in this department of the ‘Banner’ was spoken by the spirit whose name it bears, through the instrumentality of Mrs. J. H. Conant, while in an abnormal condition called the trance.”

I give a few specimens of these “messages.” Thus, for instance, discourseth the Ghost of Lolley:

How do? Don’t know me, do you? Know George Lolley? [Yes. How do you do?] I’m first rate. I’m dead; ain’t you afraid of me? You know I was familiar with those sort of things, so I wasn’t frightened to go.

“Well, won’t you say to the folks that I’m all right, and happy? that I didn’t suffer a great deal, had a pretty severe wound, got over that all right; went out from Petersburg. I was in the battle before Petersburg; got my discharge from there. Remember me kindly to Mr. Lord.

“Well, tell ’em as soon as I get the wheels a little greased up and in running order I’ll come back with the good things, as I said I would, George W. Lolley. Goodbye.

Immediately after a “message” from the spirit of John Morgan, the guerrilla, came one from Charles Talbot, who began as follows with a curious apostrophe to his predecessor:

Hi-yah! old grisly. It’s lucky for you I didn’t get in ahead of you.

“I am Charlie Talbot, of Chambersburg, Pa. Was wounded in action, captured by the Rebels, and ‘died on their hands’ as they say of the horse.”

It seems a little rude for one “spirit” to term another “Old Grisly;” but such may be the style of compliment prevailing in the spirit-world.

Here is what Brother Klink said:

“John Klink, of the Twenty-fifth South Carolina. I want to open communication with Thomas Lefar, Charleston, S.C. I am deucedly ignorant about this coming back⁠—dead railroad⁠—business. It’s new business to me, as I suppose it will be to some of you when you travel this way. Say I will do the best I can to communicate with my friends, if they will give me an opportunity. I desire Mr. Lefar to send my letter to my family when he receives it⁠—he knows where they are⁠—and then report to this office.

Good night, afternoon or morning, I don’t know which. I walked out at Petersburg.”

Here is a message from George W. Gage, with some of the questions which he answered:

“[How do you like your new home?] First rate. I likes⁠—heigho!⁠—I likes to come here, for they clears all the truck away before you get round, and fix up so you can talk right off. [Wasn’t you a medium?] No, Sir; I wasn’t afraid, though; nor my mother ain’t, either. Oh, I knew about it; I knew before I come to die, about it. My mother told me about it. I knew I’d be a woman when I come here, too. [Did you?] Yes, sir; my mother told me, and said I musn’t be afraid. Oh, I don’t likes that, but I likes to come.

“I forgot, Sir; my mother’s deaf, and always had to holler. That gentleman says folks ain’t deaf here.”

The observable points are first that he seems to have excused his “hollering” by the habits consequent upon his mother’s deafness. The “hollering” consisted of unusually heavy thumping, I suppose. But the second point is of far greater interest. George intimates that he has changed his “sect,” and become a woman! For this important alteration his good mother had prepared his mind. This style of thing will not seem so strange if we consider that some men become old women before they die!

Here is another case of feminification and restitution combined. Hans Von Vleet has become a vrow⁠—what you may call a female Dutchman! It has always been claimed that women are purer and better than men; and accordingly we see that as soon as Hans became a woman he insisted on his widow’s returning to a Jew two thousand dollars that naughty Hans had “Christianed” the poor Hebrew out of. But let Hans tell his own story:

“I was Hans Von Vleet ven I vas here. I vas Von Vleet here; I is one vrow now. I is one vrow ven I comes back; I vas no vrow ven I vas here (alluding to the fact that he was temporarily occupying the form of our medium.) I wish you to know that I first live in Harlem, State of New York. Ven I vos here, I take something I had no right to take, something that no belongs to me. I takes something; I takes two thousand dollars that was no my own; that’s what I come back to say about. I first have some dealings with one Jew; that’s what you call him. He likes to Jew me, and I likes to Christian him. I belongs to the Dutch Reform Church. (Do you think you were a good member?) Vell, I vas. I believes in the creed; I takes the sacrament; I lives up to it outside. I no lives up to it inside, I suppose. (How do you find yourself now, Hans?) Vell, I finds myself⁠—vell, I don’t know; I not feel very happy. Ven I comes to the spirit-land, I first meet that Jew’s brother, and he tells me, ‘Hans, you mus go back and makes some right with my brother.’ So I comes here.

“I vants my vrow, what I left in Harlem, to takes that two tousand dollars and gives it back to that Jew’s vrow. That’s what I came for today, Sir. (Has your vrow got it?) Vell, my vrow has got it in a tin box. Ven I first go, I takes the money, I gives it to my vrow, and she takes care of it. Now I vants my vrow to give that two tousand dollars to that Jew’s vrow.

“(How do you spell your name?) The vrow knows how to spell. (Hans Von Vleet.) There’s a something you cross in it. The vrow spells the rest. Ah, that’s wrong; you makes a blunder. It’s V. not F. That’s like all vrows. (Do all vrows make blunders?) Vell, I don’t know; all do sometimes, I suppose. (Didn’t you like vrows here?) Oh, vell, I likes ’em sometimes. I likes mine own vrow. I not likes to be a vrow myself. (Don’t the clothes fit?) Ah, vell, I suppose they fits, but I not likes to wear what not becomes me.”

It is scarcely necessary to make comments on such horrible nonsense as this. I may recur to the subject in future, should it appear expedient. At present I must drop the subject of female men.

At the head of the “Message Department” is a standing advertisement, which reads as follows:

“Our free circles are held at No. 158 Washington Street, Room No. 4 (upstairs,) on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The circle-room will be open for visitors at two o’clock; services commence at precisely three o’clock, after which time no one will be admitted. Donations solicited.”

On the days and at the hour mentioned in the above advertisement, quite an audience assembles to hear the messages Mrs. C. may have to deliver. If a stranger present should request a message from one of his spirit-friends, he would be told that a large number ofspirits were seeking to communicate through that “instrument,” and each must await his turn! Having read obituary notices in the files of old newspapers, and the published list of those recently killed in battle, the medium has data for any number of “messages.” She talks in the style that she imagines the person whom she attempts to personate would use, being one of the doctrines of spiritualism that a person’s character and feelings are not changed by death. To make the humbug more complete, she narrates imaginary incidents, asserting them to have occurred in the Earth-experience of the spirit who purports to have possession of her at the same time she is speaking. Mediums in various parts of the country furnish her with the names of and facts relative to different deceased people of their acquaintance, and those names and facts are used by her in supplying the “Message Department” of the Banner of Light.

If the assumed “mediumship” of this woman was not an imposture, some of the many people who have visited her for the purpose of getting communications from their spirit-friends would have been gratified. In most of the “messages” published in the Banner, the spirits purporting to give them, express a great desire to have their mortal friends receive them; but those mortals who seek to obtain through Mrs. Conant satisfactory messages from their spirit-friends, are not gratified⁠—the medium not being posted. The mediums are as much opposed to “new tests” as a noncommittal politician.

Time and again have leading spiritualists, in various parts of the country, endorsed as “spiritual manifestations,” what was subsequently proved to be an imposture.

Several years ago, a man by the name of Paine created a great sensation in Worcester, MA, by causing a table to move “without contact,” he claiming that it was done by spirits through his “mediumship.” He subsequently came to New York, and exhibited the “manifestation” at the house of a spiritualist⁠—where he boarded⁠—in the upper part of the city. A great many spiritualists and not a few “skeptics” went to see his performance. Paine was a very soft-spoken, “good sort of a fellow,” and appeared to be quite sincere in his claims to “mediumship.” He received no fee from those who witnessed his exhibition; and that fact, in connection with others, tended to disarm people of suspicion. His séances were held in the evening, and each visitor was received by him at the door, and immediately conducted to a seat next the wall of the room.

The visitors all in and seated, Mr. Paine took a seat with the rest in the “circle.” In the middle of the room a small table had previously been placed, and the gas had been turned partly off, leaving just enough light to make objects look ghostly.

In order to get “harmonized,” singing was indulged in for a short time by members of the “circle.” Soon a number of raps would be heard in the direction of the table, and one side of that piece of furniture would be seen to rise about an inch from the floor. Some very naturally wanted to rush to the table and investigate the matter more closely, but Paine forbade that⁠—the necessary “conditions” must be observed, he said, or there would be no further manifestation of spirit-power. As there was no one nearer to the table than six or eight feet, the fact of its moving, very naturally astonished the skeptics present. Several “seeing mediums” who attended Mr. Paine’s séances, were able to see the spirits⁠—so they declared⁠—who moved the table. One was described as a “big Injun,” who cut various capers, and appeared to be much delighted with the turn of affairs. Believers were wonderfully well-pleased to know that at last a medium was “developed” through whom the inhabitants of another world could manifest their presence to mortals in such a way that no one could gainsay the fact. The “invisibles” freely responded, by raps on the table, to various questions asked by those in the “circle.” They thumped time to lively tunes, and seemed to have a decidedly good time of it in their particular way. When the séance was concluded, Mr. Paine freely permitted an examination of his table.

In the Sunday Spiritual Conferences, then held in Clinton Hall, leading spiritualists gave an account of the “manifestations of the spirits” through Mr. Paine, and, as believers, congratulated themselves upon the existence of such “indubitable facts.” The spiritualist in whose house this exhibition of table-moving “without contact” took place, was well known as a man of strict honesty; and it was reasonably presumed that no mechanical contrivance could be used without his cognizance, in thus moving a piece of his furniture⁠—for the table belonged to him⁠—and that he would countenance a deception was out of the question.

There were in the city three gentlemen who had, for some time, been known as spiritualists; but they were, at the period of Paine’s debut as a medium in New York, very skeptical with regard to “physical manifestations.” They had, a short time before, detected the Davenports and other professed mediums in the practice of imposture; and they determined not to accept, as true, Paine’s pretence to mediumship, till after a thorough investigation of his “manifestations,” they should fail to find a material cause for them. After attending several of his séances, these gentlemen concluded that Paine moved the table by means of a mechanical contrivance fixed under the floor. One of this trio of investigators was a mechanic, and he had conceived a way⁠—and it seemed to him the only way⁠—in which the “manifestation” could be produced under the circumstances that apparently attended it. Paine was a mechanic, and these parties were aware of that fact. They made an appointment with him for a private séance. The evening fixed upon, having arrived, they met with him at his room. The table was raised and raps were made upon it, as had been done on previous occasions. One of the three investigators stepped to the door of the room, locked it, put the key in his pocket, took off his coat, and told Mr. Paine that he was determined to search his (Paine’s) person, and that if he did not find about him a small short iron rod, by means of which, through a hole in the floor, a lever underneath was worked in moving the table, he (the speaker) would beg his (Mr. Paine’s) pardon, and be forever after a firm believer in the power of disembodied spirits to move ponderable bodies. This impressive little speech had a decided and instant effect upon the “medium.” “Gentlemen,” said the latter, “I might as well own up. Please to be quietly seated, and I will tell you all about it.” And he did tell them all about it; subsequently repeating his confession before quite a number of disgusted and cheaply sold spiritualists at the “New York Spiritual Lyceum.” The theory formed by one of the three investigators referred to, as to Paine’s method of moving the table, was singularly correct.

Whilst the family with whom Paine boarded was away, one day, in attendance at a funeral, he took up several of the floor boards of the back parlor, and on the under side of them affixed a lever, with a crosspiece at one end of it; and, in the ends of the crosspiece, bits of wire were inserted, the wire being just as far apart as the legs of the table to be moved. Small holes were made in the floorboards for the wire to come through to reach the table-legs. The other end of the lever came within an inch or two of the wall. When all the arrangements were completed, and the table being properly placed in order to move it, Mr. Paine had only to insert one end of a short iron rod in a hole in the heel of his boot, put the other end of the rod through a hole in the floor, just under the edge of the carpet near the wall, and then press the rod down upon the end of the lever.

The movements necessary in fixing the iron rod to its place were executed while he was picking up his handkerchief, that he had purposely dropped.

The middle of the lever was attached to the floor, and the end with the crosspiece, being the heavier, brought the other end close up against the floor, the wires in the crosspiece having their points just within the bottom of the holes in the floor. The room was carpeted, and there were little marks on the carpet, known only to Paine, that enabled him to know just where to place the table. Pressing down the end of the lever nearest the wall, an inch would bring the wires in the crosspiece on the other end of the lever against the legs of the table, and slightly raise the latter. One of the wires would strike the table-leg a very little before the other did, and that enabled the “medium” to very nicely rap time to the tunes that were sung or played. Of course, no holes that anyone could observe would be made in the carpet by the passage of the wires through it.

For appearance’ sake, Paine, before his detection, visited, by invitation, the houses of several different spiritualists, for the purpose of holding séances; but he never got a table to move “without contact” in any other than the place where he had properly prepared the conditions.