DEsperance, Elizabeth (18551919)
Pseudonym of Elizabeth Hope Reed, a nonprofessional medium,
the story of whose life and work was recounted by William
Oxley in Angelic Revelations (1885) and by Reed in her autobiography
Shadow Land (1897). The latter work is particularly
important for the account of her own experiences. In his preface,
Russian psychical researcher Alexander Aksakof describes
the book as the frank but sorrowful story of the authors search
for the truth at the mercy of unknown but potent powers.
Born Elizabeth Hope, her earliest recollections included
seeing (in the ancient house where the family lived) strangers
continually passing to and fro, some of whom nodded and
smiled as she held up her doll for their inspection. These shadow
people were her earliest friends. She did not associate them
with ghosts, of which she was told frightful tales by the maid.
For her there was nothing supernatural about them, although
they shrank from her touch and she could not feel anything if
her hand came into contact with them. They for months at a
time vanished and on the whole they made her life miserable.
Her mother discouraged her telling stories of unseen visitors,
and the family doctor terrorized her by warning that those
who see things that do not exist are usually mad and become
A long cruise in 1867 on a boat that her father captained was
the brightest recollection of her teens. The sleepwalking that
had troubled her earlier was now cured and the shadow people
stayed away, but the happiness that was hers for many weeks
was finally marred by the terrifying vision of a shadow ship that
passed right through their own.
Another unusual experience befell her later at the end of the
school term. She had to write an essay on nature. She could
not manage a single thought. The last night came and even
then she went to bed in despair, praying in tears and crying
until she fell asleep, leaving sheets of paper and some pencils
littered across her desk. In the morning she found the sheets
covered with her own handwriting, containing an astonishing
essay on the subject. The teacher was greatly surprised by the
quality of the essay, and when she heard the story she spoke to
the rector about it. On examination day, the rector himself
read the essay and explained it as a direct answer to prayer.
At age 19, she married and settled at Newcastle-on-Tyne,
England. After her marriage the shadow people came back into
her life. By chance she heard of Spiritualism and table rapping,
which she then considered tomfoolery. Challenged by a
friend, she sat in a circle of six. The table soon began to vibrate,
heave, and answer questions. It even disclosed the unknown
whereabouts of her father, which was found afterward to be correct.
More extraordinary phenomena followed. A pair of studs
disappeared from before their eyes and from information
rapped out by the table they were found in the next room beneath
the undisturbed, compacted soil in a flower pot. The
wanderings of these studs amazed the circle. Once they were
found in a locked Japanese box on a high shelf; another time
they dropped from the ceiling into the cup of a guest at coffee
An experiment in clairvoyance was crowned with remarkable
success. Reeds eyes were covered by a Mr. F. in the dark
and she described an incident in his life that occurred 12 years
earlier. She recognized him in the vision.
Her interest was now thoroughly aroused. She spoke of the
shadow people to friends, and though the idea that she was a
medium was at first repugnant to her, she agreed to play the
part. It was suggested that she should attempt automatic writing
to establish a more efficient means of communication. It
soon came about with a tingling, pricking, and aching sensation
in her arm, and thereafter the circle reported contact with
spirit visitors Walter Tracey, a bright, jovial American,
Humnur Stafford, the self-constituted philosopher guide,
and Ninia, a child of seven. The control of each could be distinguished
by the sensation in Reeds arm and hand.
The next phase of her development came when she saw a
luminous cloud concentrated in the darkness of the room slowly
evolve into the form of a child. No one else could see the
strange apparition that she sketched, but the new development
was hailed with delight. People soon began to talk about it in
Newcastle and overwhelmed dEsperance (the name she began
to use in her new public life) with requests for the portraits of
their dead friends. To better her art she studied for a few
months, but as her sketching improved her power of seeing the
luminous figures diminished and violent headaches followed
the attempts at drawing.
Then T. P. Barkas, an intellectual of Newcastle, joined the
circle. One evening he introduced a series of popular lectures
on science, illustrated with practical experiments which he intended
to deliver. The mediums hand passed remarks through
automatic writing that claimed the theories advocated by
Barkas were wrong.
This was the beginning of a scientific period of mediumship
that lasted for several months. Hammer Stafford described in
detail an instrument that proved later to be the telephone, and
another by which messages could be forwarded to great distances
in the original handwriting. Barkas delivered his lectures
and closed them with one titled Recent Experiments in
Psychology Extraordinary Replies to Questions on Scientific
Subjects by a Young Lady of Very Limited Education.
After a year, the mediums failing health put an end to the
scientific séances. She went to the south of France to recuperate.
On her recovery she became filled with the missionary spirit,
but in trying to make converts for the new truth of Spiritualism
that she had glimpsed, she discoveredto her dismay
that the psychic powers could not be consciously summoned.
Her ability to write on scientific subjects appeared to fail, and
DEspagnet, Jean Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
her clairvoyant faculty became feeble when conscious exhibition
Yet she achieved one resultthe reconciliation between a
Professor Friese of Bremen and Johann Zöllner. The alienation
had taken place when Zöllner accepted Spiritualism. It
was Zöllner who wrote to Friese about her. As a result she spent
weeks in the professors house. One day he publicly declared
that he had become a Spiritualist, resigned his chair, and began
to write books, later published under the titles Jenseits des Grabens
and Stimmen aus der Geister Reich. A visit to Bremen by
dEsperance was followed by a long stay in Sweden. A new line
of experiment was tried there. She read letters, written in various
languages and enclosed in seven envelopes, the words of
which she had to spell out letter by letter. This power also fluctuated,
and determined efforts usually resulted in failure.
It was here that she first tried to sit for materialization. In
the darkness of the cabinet, she reported, she soon became
conscious of a curious disturbance; the air seemed to be agitated
as though a bird were fluttering about and at the second attempt
she felt as if fine threads were being drawn out of the
pores of her skin.
A face was seen by the sitters outside the curtains, but she
did not see it from within. So she stood up, feeling her knees
strangely weak, put her head out, and above her head she recognized
the merry, laughing eyes of Walter. During a sixweek
trial Walter learned the art of full materialization.
During his visits she felt strangely listless. Thoughts and impressions
swirled like lightning through her brain. She was conscious
of the thoughts and feelings of everyone in the room.
While dEsperance was in this state any movement required a
great effort, which invariably compelled the materialized forms
to retire into the cabinet, as though deprived of power to stand
or support themselves.
Yolande, a young Arab girl of 15, soon made an appearance
and remained a constant visitor. She was inquisitive and
continually mystified her audience by making things in the
room invisible and producing a variety of apports in the form
of flowers and plants. It took her about ten to fifteen minutes
to build up her body from a cloudy patch on the floor, while
the process of melting away usually took place in two to five
minutes, the drapery being the last to disappear, in one-half to
Yolandes flower apports were very strange. She usually
asked in advance for water, sand, and a water carafe. After the
water and sand were mixed in the carafe she covered it with a
part of her drapery. In a séance held on August 4, 1880, an exotic
plant grew up in the carafe. It was an Ixora crocata, 22 inches
high, with a thick woody stem that filled the neck of the bottle,
the roots firmly planted inside the glass. The natural home
of this plant is India. It was produced for William Oxley of
Manchester, and it lived for three months in his gardeners
Sitters frequently brought fern leaves and asked Yolande to
match them. She always complied. Roses were produced from
nothing and freely given away. Yolandes last and greatest work
was achieved on June 28, 1890, when she apported a seven-foot
high golden lily with 11 blossoms. The feat was witnessed by
Professors Boutlerof, Fiedler, Aksakof, and others. The power
was not sufficient for its dematerialization (Yolande insisted
that the plant was borrowed and she had to return it), and she
instructed the sitters to keep it in darkness. The lily remained
in the house for eight days and then vanished in an instant, filling
the room with an overpowering perfume.
Bitter experiences were also in store for dEsperance. The
first befell her in Newcastle in 1880. It came after observations
that one of the materialized phantoms, the French lady, bore
a bewildering resemblance to the medium.
A suspicious sitter seized the form of Yolande while the medium
was believed sitting inside the cabinet. DEsperance describes
her experience when this occurred
All I knew was a horrible excruciating sensation of being
doubled up and squeezed together, as I can imagine a hollow
gutta percha doll would feel, if it had sensation, when violently
embraced by its baby owner. A sense of terror and agonizing
pain came over me, as though I was losing hold of life and was
falling into some fearful abyss, yet knowing nothing, hearing
nothing, except the echo of a scream I heard as at a distance.
I felt I was sinking down, I knew not where. I tried to save myself,
to grasp at something, but missed it; and then came a
blank from which I awakened with a shuddering horror and
sense of being bruised to death.
The result of this experience was the outbreak of the earlier
hemorrhage of her lungs and a prolonged illness. In Sweden,
after her recovery, successful photographic experiments were
conducted to obtain portraits of the materialized entities and
spirit photographs without a formal séance. These experiments
proved to be a drain on her nervous energy, so they were
dropped after a while.
In the later materialization séances she invariably observed
the rule of sitting before the cabinet and exhibiting herself and
the phantom at the same time. Her unique description of double
identity dates from these days and reads
Now comes another figure, shorter, slenderer, and with
out-stretched arms. Somebody rises up at the far end of the circle
and comes forward and the two are clasped in each others
arms. Then inarticulate cries of Anna! Oh, Anna! My child! My
Then somebody else gets up and puts her arms round the
figure; then sobs, cries and blessings get mixed up. I feel my
body swayed to and fro and all gets dark before my eyes. I feel
somebodys arms round me although I sit on my chair alone.
I feel somebodys heart beating against my breast. I feel that
something is happening. No one is near me except the two children.
No one is taking any notice of me. All eyes and thoughts
seem concentrated on the white slender figure standing there
with the arms of the two black-robed women around it.
It must be my own heart I feel beating so distinctly. Yet
those arms round me Surely never did I feel a touch so plainly.
I begin to wonder which is I. Am I the white figure or am I the
one in the chair Are they my hands round the old ladys neck,
or are these mine that are lying on the knees of me, or on the
knees of the figure if it be not I, on the chair
Certainly they are my lips that are being kissed. It is my
face that is wet with the tears which these good women are
shedding so plentifully. Yet how can it be It is a horrible feeling,
thus losing hold of ones identity. I long to put one of these
hands that are lying so helplessly, and touch some one just to
know if I am myself or only a dreamif Anna be I, and I am
lost as it were, in her identity.
In 1893 at the house of a Professor E. of Christiana, an
Egyptian beauty calling herself Nepenthes, materialized in
the midst of the circle and was seen at the same time with the
medium. At the sitters request she dipped her hand into a paraffin
wax bucket and left behind a plaster mold of rare beauty,
which the modeler said must have been produced by sorcery as
it was obviously impossible to extricate the hand from the wax
glove without ruining it.
Nepenthes vanished from their presence as she came. She
lowered her head, on which a diadem shone, little by little became
a luminous cloud, and gradually faded away. Before her
disappearance she wrote a message in her own hand in ancient
Greek in the pocketbook of one of the sitters. All present were
ignorant of ancient Greek letters. The translation read I am
Nepenthes thy friend; when thy soul is oppressed by too much
pain, call on me, Nepenthes, and I will come at once to relieve
From time to time dEsperance felt greatly troubled. The
theories of subliminal consciousness and orthodox religious
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. DEsperance, Elizabeth
objections that the phenomena had to do with the devil disturbed
her to a growing extent. An out-of-the-body travel experience,
however, enlightened her; she realized the great
truth behind the phenomenal side of Spiritualism and, fortified
in courage, continued her missionary work.
Three times her life was endangered because of injuries received
by those who tried to catch her in fraud. The worst experience
befell her in Helsingfors in 1893, when an attempt to violate
Yolande caused nearly two years of indisposition, turning
her hair white and grey.
The outrage followed the most enigmatic phenomenon of
her mediumship the partial dematerialization of her body
from the waist down. Aksakof made an investigation and, with
the testimonies of those present, published the full story in his
book A Case of Partial Dematerialization (1898). This alleged phenomenon
occurred on the evening of December 11, 1893, at
the house of a Professor Seiling, with some 15 people present
at the séance.
Fourteen years later, Hereward Carrington published a
lengthy criticism of the case in the Proceedings of the American
Society for Psychical Research (March 1907), which was answered
by James H. Hyslop. Carrington discussed how the incident
might have been achieved by trickery. If dEsperance
was using deception, she was never caught.
Materialization mediumship has largely disappeared under
the impact of numerous revelations of fraud and the inability
of mediums to produce such phenomena as described in relation
to dEsperance under controlled conditions with competent
observers. At best, her case must remain open, though
there is every reason to believe that she simply was never
In addition to many articles she wrote for the Spiritualist
press, dEsperance wrote two books, Shadow Land (1897) and
Northern Lights (1900), the latter a collection of psychic stories
and experiences. At the outbreak of the World War I
dEsperance found herself virtually a prisoner in Germany,
where she then resided. All her papers were seized, among
them the manuscript of a second volume to Shadow Land. It was
destroyed, probably along with a quantity of séance reports in
Aksakof, Alexander. A Case of Partial Dematerialization. N.p.,
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
Carrington, Hereward. An Examination and Analysis of
the Evidence for Dematerialization as Demonstrated in Mons.
Aksakofs Book. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
Oxley, William. Angelic Revelations. 5 vols. N.p., 1885.
DEsperance, Elizabeth (18551919)