Eglinton, William (1858–1933)
Famous British medium who convinced statesman W. E.
Gladstone of the reality of psychic phenomena. Eglinton was
born in Islington, London, July 10, 1858, and showed no sign
of psychic power in his boyhood. He first heard of Spiritualism
in February 1874 at a debate in the Hall of Science, London,
between a Dr. Sexton and a Mr. Foote.
Moved by curiosity, Eglinton’s father formed a home circle.
For seven or eight evenings there were no manifestations, and
William expressed his feelings by placing upon the door of the
séance room large cards with the sarcastic inscription, ‘‘There
are lunatics confined here; they will be shortly let loose; highly
dangerous!’’ His father was highly offended and told him to either
join the circle or leave the house during the investigation.
He elected to join the circle and sat down at the table ‘‘determined
that if anything happened I would put a stop to it. Something
did happen, but I was powerless to prevent it.’’ The table
became animated and answered questions intelligently.
The evening following the séance, William himself passed
into trance for the first time, and in a few months’ time very
strong phenomena developed under the guidance of a spirit
calling himself ‘‘Joey Sandy.’’ Eighteen months later another
guide, ‘‘Ernest,’’ appeared, and very good materializations
were obtained in moonlight.
The news of Eglinton’s powers soon spread. He was besieged
with so many requests for séances that he gave up his job
in a printing firm and became a professional medium. The earliest
record of his séances was published in The Medium for September
1875. At the end of the year, several séances were given
to the Dalston Association of Spiritualists, which later elected
him an honorary member.
Many eminent men of the day attended his later sittings at
the Brixton Psychological Society and at the British National
Association of Spiritualists at 38 Great Russell St., Bloomsbury,
London. These were the so-called Blackburn séances, three series
of 12 sittings each, Eglinton being one of the first mediums
engaged. They were made possible by the generosity of Charles
Blackburn of Manchester and represented the beginnings of
organized psychical research.
The sittings were mostly held in light, which greatly impressed
the early observers of his work. It was also noted that
from the time he turned professional until 1883 he never gave
a séance in his own rooms and complied with all conditions of
control, his hands restricted by his sleeves being sewn to his
knees or behind his back to his coat.
His first levitation is described by Archdeacon Thomas Colley
in The Spiritualist, June 2, 1876
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Eglinton, William
477
‘‘The medium was next entranced and carried by invisible
power over the table several times, the heels of his boots being
made to touch the head of our medical friend [Dr. Malcolm].
Then he was taken to the further end of the dining room, and
finally, after being tilted about as a thing of no weight whatever,
was deposited quietly in his chair.’’
The general impression created by his power is conveyed in
the Western Morning News of July 28, 1876 ‘‘If Mr. Eglinton is
a conjurer he is undoubtedly one of the cleverest who ever
lived. Maskelyne and Cook are not a patch upon Mr. Eglinton.
The Egyptian Hall exposure of Spiritualism is mere child’s play
compared with what we witnessed.’’ The Daily Telegraph reported
on October 10, 1876, that the Scientific Research Committee
of the British National Association of Spiritualists had obtained
direct spirit writing under absolute test conditions
through the membership of Eglinton.
Marvels of Materialization
Among the many remarkable séances for materialization he
gave at this time, the most surprising results were obtained during
his stay at Malvern as the guest of a Dr. and Mrs. Nichols.
In a written account of the séances Nichols observes
‘‘All our séances are held under test conditions. They are
held in a small upper room in my own house, with its one door
locked, and its one window, thirty feet from the ground, fastened.
The number of persons present never exceeds six, all of
whom I know intimately. I know pretty accurately what can be
done by sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, palmistry or otherwise.’’
He sums up his experiences thus
‘‘Four times I have seen a white-robed form standing by Willie
Eglinton. I have seen ‘‘Joey’’ make yards of muslin. I have
seen him standing beside his medium, and I have heard him
speak in a brilliantly-lighted room, when Mr. Eglinton was with
us and no more entranced than the rest of us. I have seen hands
and arms and the face only, and I have seen full forms appear
and disappear. I have seen a tall man appear and after many
minutes with us, and in good light, I have seen him gradually
sink down and become invisible, all but a few inches of form,
and then that seemed to snap out. I have seen a full form dissolve
and leave the drapery suspended as if held up by a hand;
and I have seen the form shrink away to nothing visible and
leave the garments lying about the floor. These not long after
disappeared.’’
Nichols’s descriptions of Eglinton’s open-air materializations
in his garden, related in the appendix to Epes Sargent’s
The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism (1881), are among the most extraordinary
accounts in the history of Spiritualism. In one he
relates that,
‘‘Mr. Eglinton lay on a garden bench in plain sight. We saw
the bodies of four visitors form themselves from a cloud of
white vapour and then walk about, robed all in purest white,
upon the lawn where no deception was possible. One of them
walked quite around us, as we sat in our chairs on the grass,
talking as familiarly as any friend . . . [and] took my hat from
my head, put it on his own, and walked off with it where the medium
was lying; then he came and put it on my head again;
then walked across the lawn and up a gravel walk to the foot of
the balcony and talked with Mrs. Nichols. After a brief conversation
he returned to the medium and gradually faded from
sight.’’
According to this narrative, the medium was constantly in
sight, no confederate could have come over the wall without
being seen or heard, and the maximum distance of the materialized
spirit from the medium was 66 feet in the direct line,
whereas altogether about 400 feet were covered by the spirit
from the time he first left the medium to his final return.
The accounts published in the Spiritualist periodicals of the
time also describe Eglinton’s one-armed control ‘‘Abdullah’’
who on occasion was reported to have materialized. He was
adorned with amazingly rich jewels, which he allowed to be examined.
He was bedecked with precious stones, rings, crosses,
and clusters of rubies that were worth a fortune. A description
by John S. Farmer, Eglinton’s biographer, of a materialization
séance so much agrees with observations of the flow of ectoplasm
that it created a strong presumption for Eglinton’s genuine
psychic powers in many researchers’ minds
‘‘All this time the breathing of the psychic had been increasingly
laboured and deep, accompanied at times with groans.
Now standing, in full view . . . I saw him, by a quick movement
of the fingers, gently draw, apparently from under his morning-coat,
the top button of which was fastened, a dingy, whitelooking
substance. . . . The movement of the fingers was such
as to draw it at right angles from him, allowing it to fall and
hand by its own weight down his left side. As it emerged from
under his coat and fell, it gradually increased in volume until
it reached the ground, covering Mr. Eglinton’s left leg from the
knee downwards, the connecting link between this portion and
his side being preserved the whole time. The mass of white material
on the ground increased in breadth, and now commenced
to pulsate and move up and down, also swaying from
side to side, the motor power being underneath the mass of
material, and concealed from sight by it. . . . The height increased
to three feet, and shortly afterwards, the ‘form’ quickly
and quietly grew to its full stature, carrying the abovementioned
dingy white material with it. . . .
‘‘All this time the link (of the same white appearance as already
described) was maintained between the growing ‘form’
and Mr. Eglinton, who had remained in sight of all of us during
the whole operation. The connecting link was either now completely
severed, or became so attenuated as to be invisible, and
the ‘form’ [a bearded man of middle age] . . . advanced to Mr.
Everitt, shook hands with him, and passed round the circle,
treating nearly every one in the same manner . . . then reapproached
Mr. Eglinton, who was now partially supported
from falling by Mr. Rogers, and, taking the psychic firmly by
the shoulders, dragged him into the cabinet.’’
There is a strange contrast between the foregoing testimonies
and Elington’s subsequent exposure by Archdeacon
Thomas Colley. During a séance in Owen Harris’s house, Colley
cut a piece of the robe and a piece of the beard of the
materialized figure. The pieces fitted to perfection the muslin
and beard that he found in the medium’s portmanteau. The
story of this exposure was published in the Journal of the Society
for Psychical Research (SPR). Eglinton was in South Africa
when the revelation was made public and denied the charge on
his return. The Council of the British National Association of
Spiritualists ordered an investigation, which, at the end, dismissed
the charge on the basis that no direct evidence could be
obtained from the accusers. Colley’s exposure presaged events
yet to come, but before Eglinton’s fraudulent ways were decisively
known, he presented some dramatic performances.
The most extraordinary phenomenon Eglinton produced
was his own teleportation on March 16, 1878, at Mrs. Makdougall
Gregory’s house, through the ceiling into the room above,
an account of which was published in The Spiritualist of March
22, 1878. He followed this with a year of travel. On July 5, 1878,
on the invitation of a Dr. Hutchinson, Eglinton left for Cape
Town, South Africa. He spent nine months with his host, giving
many séances, of which copious notes were made. He studied
dentistry in his leisure time and was enrolled in 1879 in England
as a duly qualified practitioner.
After his return to England in May 1879, Eglinton produced
some interesting results while the guest of Colonel and Mrs.
Francis Lean (Florence Marryat) at Bruges, Belgium, in a
haunted house, the ghost of which he finally laid to rest.
Shortly after this he received an invitation to visit Sweden.
He gave 19 séances in Stockholm, which were attended by
many scientific and literary men. Professors Tornebom and Edland,
both of them skeptical previously, published a favorable
report on his mediumship in the Aftonblad of October 30, 1879.
He also gave sittings at Upsala University and then left for DenEglinton,
William Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
478
mark, Germany, and Bohemia. In Munich he was the guest of
Gabriel Max, the eminent painter, and furnished the inspiration
for his impressive painting Geistesgrüss.
After his return he gave striking séances at Cambridge University
under the auspices of the Psychological Society, during
which he was handcuffed to one person and held by another.
It was in this month that Florence Cook was exposed by Sir
George Sitwell and Carl von Buch. The atmosphere was decidedly
hostile, and in March 1880 Eglinton again left for the Continent.
He was engaged in Leipzig by Baron von Hoffman to
give séances to Johann C. F. Zöllner and others connected with
the University of Leipzig.
Zöllner was very satisfied with the result of his 25 sittings
and intended to publish a book on his experiences, but death
intervened. In Vienna Eglinton gave more than 30 séances to
Baron Hellenbach.
After traveling again to Munich to carry out an engagement
for 12 séances, the 11th of which was marred by some evidence
of fraud, Eglinton returned to England. He gave no more professional
séances that year, but the Spiritualist press was kept
informed by Nichols of the many experiments in direct writing
and drawing that were conducted in his house. In February
1881 Eglinton sailed for New York and remained in the United
States until the middle of May.
Miracles in India—and a Disaster
In October 1881, following an invitation from J. G. Meugens,
a wealthy Indian merchant, Eglinton left for Calcutta. He
was apparently very successful in his Indian séances, some of
which were held at the residence of the Maharajah Sir Jotendro
Johun Tagore and reported in the daily Indian Mirror, but it is
noteworthy that with the increase in distance from London
there was a proportionate increase in the marvels.
The spirit ‘‘postmastership’’ that Eglinton ‘‘established’’ between
London and Calcutta was almost unprecedented in the
annals of Spiritualism. According to the narrative of a Mr. Meugens,
privately marked sheets of paper were whisked by the
spirits to London and returned shortly after to Calcutta with
the handwriting of a close friend describing how his room had
been suddenly filled with light and how the spirit ‘‘Ernest’’
stood by and waited for the letter to carry it back. It was claimed
that this happened on several occasions. Indeed, once Meugens
asked that the ring of a Mrs. Fletcher, who was then in
Tothill Fields Prison (in Meugens’s belief unjustly convicted),
be brought to him. The spirits complied. The ring could not
be identified, but a few days later the spirits brought a letter in
Fletcher’s own handwriting telling Meugens that she had sent
the ring.
Such accounts of Eglinton’s phenomena were so eagerly received
that for the period of his stay in Calcutta a new fortnightly
journal, similar to the Light, was started to meet the demand.
The venture was said to have met with considerable success.
Throughout Eglinton’s visit to Calcutta, Harry Kellar, the famous
conjurer, was also there, giving stage exposures of fraudulent
Spiritualism. He issued a challenge to Eglinton in the Indian
Daily News for January 13, 1882, and promised an
unbiased opinion as to the natural explanations of the phenomena.
An invitation was duly extended. Afterward Kellar publicly
stated, ‘‘I went as a skeptic, but I must own that I came away utterly
unable to explain, by any natural means, the phenomena
that I witnessed on Tuesday evening.’’ He held the medium’s
left hand and was half levitated with Eglinton. He had no doubt
that this phenomenon was genuine and reiterated this conviction
in print many years later. But he wavered on endorsing independent
slate writing, of which he also obtained a convincing
demonstration.
After Meugens left India, Eglinton went to Howran, across
the Hooghly River from Calcutta, as the guest of a Colonel and
Mrs. Gordon and remained with them for the rest of his stay.
He converted Lord William Beresford to Spiritualism and left
for England in April 1882.
Eglinton sailed for England on the SS Vega. He claimed that
during the voyage he was visited by Koot Hoomi (or Kut
Humi). He described this meeting in a letter that was mysteriously
transported from the open seas to Bombay and fell into
the center of a room where Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, cofounder
of the Theosophical Society, held company. The letter
was addressed to Mrs. Gordon in Calcutta. Blavatsky wrote
some notes on visiting cards and wrapped them up with the letter,
which was then transported by the same mysterious agency
to Calcutta and dropped from the ceiling in the company of Olcott
and the Gordons. It was later claimed that the Mahatma
letters were written by Blavatsky, and it appears likely that
Eglinton was in concert with her and left a letter, identical to
the one written on the ship, with her, and that she made careful
arrangements for its mysterious appearance at the appropriate
moment. There is indirect proof of this supposition in the fact
that J. E. O’Conor, a Theosophist on board ship, unexpectedly
asked Eglinton to enclose, as an additional test, a letter from
himself to Blavatsky. Eglinton undertook the task. Blavatsky,
however, at the time of the alleged delivery of Eglinton’s letter,
made no communication of O’Conor’s note. In excuse she said
that O’Conor’s letter was private and she did not know whether
he wished it to be made public. In further explanation she
added that for some unaccountable reason, O’Conor’s letter arrived
an hour after the one from Eglinton was received.
Eglinton denied that he had met Blavatsky in India at all,
but it appears to be a fact that he took many letters of introduction
to her and to her colleague, Henry S. Olcott, then president
of the society, and that he met Blavatsky in Calcutta. In
light of this and considering that the evidence of the manufacture
of the Koot Hoomi letters by Blavatsky appears to be
strong, the grossness of the fraud seemed clear. He was also accused,
in the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 3, p. 254), of conspiring
with Blavatsky.
This highly damaging incident was hardly touched upon in
John Farmer’s biography. He contented himself ‘‘with putting
on record the maturer conclusions of Mr. Eglinton with regard
to the ‘appearance’ on board the Vega. He now believes the apparition
to have been a spontaneous materialization, of a somewhat
unusual order, of someone who called himself ‘Koot
Hoomi.’ ’’
After his return from India, Eglinton attempted to retire
from professional mediumship by entering into partnership
with a gentleman in a publishing firm, operating under the
name Ross Publishing Company. In August 1883, however, he
severed his connection and fell back again on mediumship as
a means of living.
The Great Slate-Writing Problem
From 1884 on Eglinton concentrated on slate writing, which
he suggested was simply a far easier means of bringing conviction
than materializations (and also offered less chance of detection
in fraudulent activity). According to biographer Farmer,
he sat almost daily for this phenomenon for upward of
three years before he obtained any results at all. His slatewriting
séances were impressive, as he subjected himself to
every test condition posed to him and, in contrast to Henry
Slade, remained passive and quiet throughout the performance.
As a result of some very successful sittings, W. P. Adshed
of Belper, in northern England, offered a challenge of £500 to
anyone who was not a medium and could produce the same results
under the same conditions.
On October 29, 1884, British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone
had a séance with Eglinton. He obtained answers to his
questions, which were privately written on the hostess’s own
slates, both when the slates were held under the table and when
they were laid upon the table in full view of all present, as well
as when the slates were locked. Some of the questions were put
in Spanish, French, and Greek and answered in the same lanEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Eglinton, William
479
guage. Gladstone was so impressed that soon after he joined
the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).
On two occasions in 1884 Eglinton gave public performances
from the stage at a meeting of the London Spiritualist
Alliance and at a lecture of his own in St. James’s Hall, London.
Both séances were eminently successful.
In 1885 Eglinton left again for the Continent. In Paris he
made the acquaintance of J. Tissot, the celebrated French
genre painter, and in a materialization séance on May 20 completely
convinced him of spirit return. Tissot’s mezzotint Apparition
Medianimique, later hung at the offices of the London
Spiritualist Alliance, was an idealized conception of his experience.
During Eglinton’s stay in Paris, Charles Richet had some
sittings with him. He obtained what was for him further verification
of Eglinton’s powers on a subsequent visit to London in
company with a Dr. Myers, brother of F. W. H. Myers.
Richet nevertheless did not attribute much importance to
his slate-writing experiences, as revealed in his book Thirty
Years of Psychical Research (1923)
‘‘I drew a design on the slate so that Eglinton could not see
the drawing. The slate was reversed and a small piece of chalk
placed on it. I took the slate in my hand and without letting it
go, held it under the table, Eglinton holding the other end of
the slate. After two or three minutes a curious facsimile of my
sketch was reproduced, but I think that a skillful illusionist
could have done as much.’’
Yet Richet admitted, in the same book, that ‘‘Eglinton was
a very powerful medium, and though he has been suspected of
fraud, he was able, finally, to prove that the allegations of his
enemies were calumnies.’’
Alfred Russel Wallace was convinced of the genuineness of
Eglinton’s materializations. He had seen his phantom ‘‘Abdullah’’
in a private house while Eglinton was also visible, sitting
in evening dress in an armchair. A careful search was made, but
no paraphernalia were discovered.
From Paris Eglinton left for Vienna, where he met Baron du
Prel, who published some of his experiences under the title A
Problem for Conjurers, in which he concludes ‘‘Through Eglinton
I have received the proof that [Johann] Zöllner, who was
the first in Germany to have courage to speak of these slate
writings, discovered a grand truth and that all his opponents
who have neither read nor seen anything in this domain are in
the wrong.’’
In 1886 a bitter fight over slate writing was waged between
the SPR and Spiritualists in general. S. T. Davey, an associate
of the SPR and also an amateur conjurer, was most impressed
by Eglinton’s performances, but soon became suspicious. He
studied the subject from the point of view of conjuring and,
placing himself in the hands of the SPR, came out, with Richard
Hodgson as manager, under an assumed name as a medium.
Owing to the ensuing sensation caused by Davey’s performances,
Eleanor Sidgwick, writing in the Journal of the SPR,
claimed ‘‘no hesitation in attributing the performances of
Eglinton to clever conjuring.’’
In Davey’s account of his actions, which was published in the
SPR’s Proceedings, he told the story of about 20 sittings in which
he rivaled the feats of professional slate writers. He produced
messages on the sitters’ own slates and in screwed, sealed, and
locked double slates; wrote them in colors; answered questions
in various languages; performed successful reading tests; produced
written numbers on mental request; made a tumbler
walk across the table in strong gaslight; floated music boxes;
and produced materialized figures in a séance room.
Davey’s explanation of his slate-writing feats was that he either
substituted prepared slates with a message already written
or wrote the message himself noiselessly under the table by
means of a fragment of pencil fixed in a thimble that he slipped
on his finger. For many of his phenomena, however, he failed
to furnish a satisfactory explanation. Spiritualists took this as a
confirmation of their belief that Davey himself was a renegade
medium.
Alfred Russel Wallace, who responded to Davey in the 1891
issue of the Journal of the SPR, writes, ‘‘Unless all can be so explained,
many of us will be confirmed in our belief that Mr.
Davey was really a medium as well as a conjurer, and that in imputing
all his performances to trick he was deceiving the society
and the public.’’
In the same volume of the Proceedings in which the Davey report
was published, Carvill Lewis reported that, by purposely
turning his head away and pretending to divert his attention,
he heard Eglinton write on a slate and occasionally saw the
movements of the tendons of the wrist in the act of writing. The
SPR also requested ‘‘Professor Hoffmann’’ (well-known conjurer
Angelo J. Lewis) to report in his professional capacity on
Eglinton’s performances. He conducted 12 sittings and studied
the reports furnished by others, concluding that, although
many of the circumstances suggested occasional trickery,
‘‘ . . . on the other hand, I do not believe the cleverest conjurer
could, under the same conditions, use trickery in the wholesale
way necessary to produce all these phenomena without exposing
himself to constant risk of detection. If conjuring were
the only explanation of the slate-writing phenomena, I should
certainly have expected that their secret would long since have
become public property.’’
As a result of the bitter controversy that arose over the accusations
of the SPR, many Spiritualists resigned their membership.
Eglinton invited testimonies from his sitters. They came
forth in abundance. Eglinton had given nearly 3,500 sittings up
to this period, and only three claims of fraud were made against
him. Then assistant secretary to the SPR, Edward T. Bennett,
in his Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism (1906), states ‘‘What I
may call the Eglinton problem was, at least so it seems to me,
left not only in an incomplete, but in an unsatisfactory state
after the death of Mr. S. T. Davey.’’
In 1887 Eglinton visited Russia and gave a séance for Emperor
Alexander III. Spiritualist leader Alexander Aksakof
had opportunities for repeated experiments, and he also maintained
that Eglinton possessed great and genuine psychic powers.
After returning from Russia, Eglinton married and started
a new career. He abandoned mediumship and Spiritualism for
journalism. He became editor of well-known publications such
as The New Age and The Tatler. In 1890 he traveled in South Africa
and indulged a passion for game shooting, acquiring a
large private collection of trophies. In 1895 he was vicechairman
of the Anglo-African Writers Club, and he was chairman
in 1896. He founded the British and South African Export
Gazette, which he also edited, and was proprietor of the British
Export Gazette. As a notable journalist his former association
with mediumship was never referred to, and he achieved the
distinction of entry in the prestigious publication Who’s Who,
where his recreations were listed as shooting, yachting, golf,
and croquet. He died March 10, 1933.
Sources
Farmer, John S. Twixt Two Worlds. London, 1886.
Marryat, Florence. There Is No Death. New York John W.
Lovell, 1891. Reprint, New York Causeway Books, 1973.