An interesting blog, Chasing Down Emma, devoted to scholarship about Emma Hardinge Brittan, the nineteenth century Spiritualist medium and author of Modern American Spiritualism (1870), who developed the seven principles which still characterize the belief system of spiritualism today: The Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man, The Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels, The Continuous Existence of the Human Soul, Personal Responsibility, Compensation and Retribution Hereafter For All the Good and Evil Deeds Done On Earth, Eternal Progress Open To Every Human Soul. Here's a link to a companion archive on Mrs. Britten. While the archive has a link to the blog, the reverse doesn't seem to be true.
From what I know about Mrs. Britten, she was a spirited sort. I can't readily discern who runs the archive and blog, but I'll bet he or she is having a lot of fun chasing Emma down.
We've read the story that former First Lady Nancy Reagan regularly consulted an astrologer, and that Cherie Blair, wife of former British PM Tony Blair, used to follow some New Age practices (it's not entirely clear which ones, or how factual the stories were). But how many people knew at the time, or know now that William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada during some of its most difficult years (especially during the Second World War), took spiritualism seriously, attended seances in order to communicate with dead members of his families, and confided his spiritualist beliefs to his diary, apparently he thought that if the public, or his political adversaries, found out that he was a Spiritualist, his political career would be over? He was probably right about that. More here from Libraries and Archives Canada.
Loyal Dorothy (Lena) Young, the last surviving of Houdini's assistants, died March 20. She was 103. Through the years, Ms. Young never told the secrets of Houdini's amazing deceptions, although she did occasionally describe some bits of stage business that pleased audiences. After performing for a year with Houdini and his wife Bess, Ms. Young went on to a short career in films (Flying Down To Rio) and toured the country in a dance act with her second husband. Ms. Young appears in the documentary Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery (2005) as herself. Veras Films made a documentary about Dorothy Young a few years ago. More here about Houdini, his assistants, and his mission to uncover spiritualists and fraud here.
Emily Mann provides a selected bibliography of spiritualism here. It includes discussion of the origins of the movement, and annotations of sources (print and online materials), mostly secondary sources, but some primary materials. Very nice for those wanting to get started doing research in the subject.
Sarah Dionne, a practicing Wiccan in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is annoyed at some local religious groups. She says they pressured the Western Development Museum, which had been planning to hold a seance and educational event on October 29, into cancelling its plans, because they were worried that the seance might conjure up "evil spirits." Ms. Dionne scoffs at the notion that using Ouija boards and attempting to contact whomever might be out there might pose a danger to the participants, or anyone else. As she told CBC News, "To suggest that contacting any sorts of spirits or otherwise unknown forces in the universe is somehow evil … just doesn't make sense."
Of course, let's be logical. If spirits survive death, and nasty people have nasty spirits, then one would expect that one might actually contact a spirit with bad intentions. The law of averages would suggest that all the spirits one contacts wouldn't necessary be nice ones. However, let's move on.
Ms. Dionne isn't proposing that the event be rescheduled, though. She says Wiccans don't necessarily associate themselves with Ouija boards, or seances. She's simply noting that they've been lumped in with "evil" and nasty practices and, dare we say, the Evil One Himself, once again. But what I don't quite understand is why she thinks Wiccans and pagans have been associated with this event at all. From the article I cannot tell that she or anyone she is associated with sponsored the event. Apart from the fact that the event was close to Hallowe'en, and Hallowe'en is generally associated with witches, and she is a Wiccan, I don't see the connection. More here in an article from the CBCNews.
Reader Frederick Brodie notes that the Arizona State Bar wants to rid itself of Charna Johnson, the lawyer who says she "channeled" her client's dead wife while representing another client. A disciplinary panel recommended a lesser sanction, suspension and probation instead of disbarment. I blogged this quite remarkable case earlier in the year. Mr. Brodie points out that the statements attributed to the wife raise the hearsay question, which in turn raises another issue. Could the statements be admissible in court? I'm certainly not an expert in the rules of evidence, but I'll give it a whirl (a very tiny whirl). Let's look at the Rules of Evidence, taking as a sample New Hampshire's rules (well, why not?)
What is the definition of "unavailable" for purposes of New Hampshire's rule 804? Being dead seems to qualify, but let's check the rule to be certain.
(a) Definition of unavailability. "Unavailability as a witness" includes situations in which the declarant -
(1) is exempted by ruling of the court on the ground of privilege from testifying concerning the subject matter of his or her statement; or
(2) persists in refusing to testify concerning the subject matter of his or her statement despite an order of the court to do so; or
(3) testifies to a lack of memory of the subject matter of his or her statement; or
(4) is unable to be present or to testify at the hearing because of death or then existing physical or mental illness or infirmity; or
(5) is absent from the hearing and the proponent of the witness' statement has been unable to procure the witness' attendance (or in the case of a hearsay exception under subdivision (b)(2), (3), or (4), the witness' attendance or testimony) by process or other reasonable means.
I'd say such a declarant fits under (4): "unable to present or to testify at the hearing because of death".
Would a proponent's statements about what the dead person has communicated after death fit within any of the exceptions? As given to a proponent, could they fit, say, within (5) or (6) below?
(b) Hearsay exceptions. The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness:
(1) Former testimony. Testimony given as a witness at another hearing of the same or a different proceeding, or in a deposition taken in compliance with law in the course of the same or another proceeding, if the party against whom the testimony is now offered, or, in a civil action or proceeding, a predecessor in interest, had an opportunity and similar motive to develop the testimony by direct, cross, or redirect examination.
(2) Statement under belief of impending death. In a prosecution for homicide or in a civil action or proceeding, a statement made by a declarant while believing that his or her death was imminent, concerning the cause or circumstances of what the declarant believed to be impending death.
(3) Statement against interest. A statement which was at the time of its making so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject the declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim by the declarant against another, that a reasonable person in this position would not have made the statement unless the person believed it to be true. A statement tending to expose the declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement.
(4) Statement of personal or family history. (A) A statement concerning the declarant's own birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, legitimacy, relationship by blood, adoption, or marriage, ancestry, or other similar fact of personal or family history, even though declarant had no means of acquiring personal knowledge of the matter stated; or (B) a statement concerning the foregoing matters, and death also, of another person, if the declarant was related to the other by blood, adoption, or marriage or was so intimately associated with the other's family as to be likely to have accurate information concerning the matter declared.
(5) Statement of a deceased person. In actions, suits or proceedings by or against the representatives of deceased persons, including proceedings for the probate of wills, any statement of the deceased, whether oral or written, shall not be excluded as hearsay provided the Trial Judge shall first find as a fact that the statement was made by decedent, and that it was made in good faith and on decedent's personal knowledge.
(6) Other exceptions. A statement not specifically covered by any of the foregoing exceptions but having equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness, if the court determines that (A) the statement is offered as evidence of a material fact; (B) the statement is more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence which the proponent can procure through reasonable efforts; and (C) the general purposes of these rules and the interests of justice will best be served by admission of the statement into evidence. However, a statement may not be admitted under this exception unless the proponent of it makes known to the adverse party sufficiently in advance of the trial or hearing to provide the adverse party with a fair opportunity to prepare to meet it, the proponent's intention to offer the statement and the particulars of it, including the name and address of the declarant.
Well, maybe. I suppose one could argue that the proponent might say that deceased person might have more information than anyone else concerning the deceased person's will. But the trial judge still has to find that the statement was made by the deceased person. Aye, there's the rub. Under (6), then? Is the statement offered as evidence of a material fact? More probative than other evidence which the proponent can gather? Will justice be served? Again, we are back to the question of whether these spirit communications are trustworthy, and I'm not suggesting here that the proponent is lying about them, but whether a third party, hearing them, can discern whether they represent communications from the deceased or not. The proponent might believe in good faith that they are communications from the deceased. But is that good enough for the court? These communications are made after death and in the presence of no living witness, so that the safeguards that the rules of evidence are set up to create don't work. One could, I suppose, have a notary standing by at a seance in case a spirit came through with important information. One could compare them with statements made by the deceased before death: are they consistent with those statements (see b(1) or b(4), for example)? Or are they consistent with the statements of others on those topics?
Ultimately, I think we get into the determination of whether the statements are actually those of the deceased or those of the proponent, and the question of the probative value of the statements, both of which, it seems to me bear on b(6). "Name and address of the address" would seem to be a problem, though. Is the name of the decedent with the cemetery plot location enough? What if the person was cremated? Or if the person's body was never located? I could go on, but at this point, I yield to the evidence experts out there. I could find no U.S. cases discussing spirit communications as hearsay although I found a fair number of cases discussing the effect of belief in spiritualism on the validity of wills, for example. For more on that topic see Christopher Buccafusco's Spiritualism and Wills in the Age of Contract.
October 31st isn't just Hallowe'en. It's the anniversary of Harry Houdini's death in 1926. He died in Detroit (I know--not a very Hallowe'eny place). His insurance policy paid "double indemnity" because his death was the result of an accident. More on Houdini's will and estate here.
Want to attend a seance to see if Houdini returns? Try The Harry Houdini Museum which hosts such an event each year. Harry has been a no-show so far, however, just as he was for his wife Bess through 1936. She gave up that year and revealed the secret word he had told her he would send her if there was an afterlife: "Believe." A link to the final seance is here. Some of Houdini's colleagues keep trying, however. Here's a link to a seance from last year, hosted by the inimitable James Randi.
Maybe, like Greta Garbo, Mr. Houdini just "vants to be alone." After all, there is such a thing as the right to privacy. And even if it doesn't survive death, a famous dead magician might just want the neighbors, the family, and colleagues to stop dropping by, especially on a busy day, like Hallowe'en.
I just received and have been watching the latest volume of Perry Mason DVDs (season 5, volume 1), which includes a wonderful episode called "The Case of the Meddling Medium." In it, a wealthy woman who longs to make contact with her dead son goes through a succession of psychics and mediums, all of whom claim to be able to put her in contact with his spirit. But she doesn't believe in any of their abilies, until a young man comes along, who goes into a trance and produces copies of poems that the dead man wrote and showed, apparently to no one, before he passed away.
When the young man, who claims to be a distant relative of the family, turns up the victim of a terrible accident in the same manner as the dead son, Perry Mason steps in to defend the woman charged with the murder, who also seems to have paranormal powers. She falls into a trance also, and produces via automatic writing, more communications from the dead son.
It's up to Perry to figure out whether the murder victim actually had these powers, whether his client has them, and what's actually going on. What I find particularly interesting about this episode, written by Samuel Newman and first broadcast on October 21, 1961, is that the expert Perry calls on for assistance is none other than Dr. Andrija Puharich, played by---Dr. Andrija Puharich.
The episode features a good many of the kinds of things popular culture often associates with mediums: a dark and stormy night and a seance (opening scene), a trance and automatic writing, deception (the murder victim and the opening scene's medium), writing inspired by the dead, and attempts to test paranormal abilities scientifically, which is where Dr. Puharich comes in). Perry's law clerk, David Gideon, excitedly suggests that Perry contact Dr. Puharich "at the parapsychology laboratory." Perry agrees that might be a good idea, but he also wants information about anyone involved in the case who might have "electrical training or experience."
Dr. Puharich, who is remembered more for his experiments on parapsychology than for his work in the field of energy, agrees to discuss the paranomal with him. Eventually, Dr. Puharich becomes an expert witness in the case. Crucial to his examination of Mason's client--and to Mason's trapping of the real killer--is the use of a Faraday cage, invented by scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867). A Faraday cage shields anything or anyone inside it against electrical current. Its use in paranormal testing is to shield someone being tested from electromagnetic signals that might give a false reading on the person being tested.
For Mason, the problem ultimately is that his client is not lying (since Mason's clients never lie, at least not so much that Mason doesn't catch them) and does not seem to be self deceived. So, is she exhibiting real paranormal abilities? Is she slightly off her rocker? Dr. Puharich actually provides some helpful clues for the lawyer, based on a psychological analysis of the client. An interesting episode, in an iconic series.