Foster, Charles H. (1838–1888)
American medium who had a controversial career. The
claim put forward in The Salem Seer (1891) by his enthusiastic
biographer, George C. Bartlett, that he was the greatest spiritual
medium since Emanuel Swedenborg seems somewhat exaggerated,
and whatever powers he possessed he probably magnified
through fraud.
Foster was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and educated at a
public school there. According to Bartlett, the first indications
of his mediumship were noticed at age 14. During school hours
raps were heard on his desk. At night he was awakened by violent
noises and the furniture was tossed about in his room.
Some time later the phenomena began to occur in daylight,
and furniture was heard moving about in rooms where no one
was present. Skin writing (see dermography) and pellet reading
were the special features of his mediumship. Both were subjects
of lively discussion and controversy.
According to an amusing story told in his biography, Foster
was once rudely seized by the arm when skin writing was produced.
Two men asked for a test in plain sight. While they were
holding him, in large round characters the words ‘‘Two Fools’’
appeared on the medium’s arm. In such skin writing the letters
were blood-red and, as a rule, displayed the name of the communicating
spirit. They appeared mostly on Foster’s forearm.
In pellet reading the usual procedure was to ask the sitters
to write the names of their deceased relatives on slips of paper
while the medium was out of the room, roll them up, and put
as many blank pellets as they liked together with them in a heap
on the table. On his return the names on the slips were spelled
out by raps, and Foster picked out the writing, delivered trance
addresses, and gave clairvoyant and clairaudient descriptions
of spirits. He claimed that Virgil, Camoens, Cervantes, and
many other illustrious entities were among his communicators.
In 1861 Foster visited England and while there materialization
phenomena were added to his performances. His first séance
was given in the house of William Wilkinson, the editor of
Spiritual magazine. He became friendly with the Master of LytThe
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ton, with whom he stayed at Knebworth. The literary elite—
Charles Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Robert Chambers, and
William Howitt—came to him for sittings. John Ashburner, an
authority on animal magnetism and Spiritualism, recorded
unusual phenomena. He saw nine materialized hands floating
over the dining table and witnessed a levitation of the medium
and of the piano on which he was playing.
In January 1862, at the invitation of Thomas P. Barkas, Foster
gave four séances in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At each of these,
ten persons participated. Their names were kept in a private
book and withheld from the medium. With these 40 people the
errors in the communications, according to Barkas, did not exceed
three percent, and these usually happened during some
trifling confusion or controversy.
Nevertheless, Barkas had the impression that, although Foster
was a genuine medium, he occasionally, perhaps frequently,
heightened the effects by trickery and deception. In support of
this surmise, Barkas points out, in his Outlines of Ten Years Investigations
into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism (1862), that
the names of the departed spirits were written by the medium
according to the spelling on the pellets, which was sometimes
wrong; the communications were extraordinarily similar; his
rapid entrancement and sudden relief were more likely to be
apparent than real; and the writing, whether obtained directly
or automatically, always resembled the normal writing of the
Sentiment eventually turned against Foster. In 1863 Spiritual
magazine stated that the editor had received from a Judge
Edmonds such ‘‘sickening details of his criminality in another
direction that we should no longer soil our pages with his mediumship.’’
Foster simply left England for the Continent. He
went to Paris, appeared before Napoleon III, toured Australia,
and finally returned to New York.
Epes Sargent records convincing personal experiences in
pellet reading with Foster in Planchette, or the Despair of Science
(1869). On the other hand, John W. Truesdell, in The Bottom
Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism (1883), tells of an exposure
in 1872 in New York. Foster palmed the pellets and
read them by continually relighting his cigar, the match being
held in the hollow of his hand.
The case of Charles Foster well illustrates the difficulty of assessing
the phenomena of psychic people. It seems likely that
Foster was often guilty of fraud, particularly in such phenomena
as pellet reading, which is peculiarly amenable to simple
magic tricks. On the other hand there is strong testimony of
some genuine mediumistic insights.
Foster was a convivial character who enjoyed drinking alcohol
and smoking long cigars in barrooms with his companions
as much as he did transmitting messages from the dead. His biographer,
Bartlett, summarizes his observations of Foster thus:
‘‘He was extravagantly dual. He was not only Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde, but he represented half-a-dozen different Jekylls and
Hydes. . . . He was an unbalanced genius, and at times, I
should say, insane. . . . He wore out many of his friends. He
seemed impervious to the opinions of others, and apparently
yielded to every desire.’’
Some of Foster’s strangest phenomena, like skin writing, appear
to have been involuntary. During Foster’s tour of England
in 1861 Dr. John Ashburner was called to Foster’s bedside by
one of his companions, who stated that Foster was near death.
Ashburner found him in a drunken stupor, following a night
of unrestrained drinking with friends. After Ashburner examined
the medium, then in a drunken torpor, an extraordinary
phenomenon occurred, as Ashburner narrates in his book Philosophy
of Animal Magnetism and Spiritualism (1867):
‘‘Suddenly the bedclothes were tightly rolled downwards as
far as his groin. The shirt was then rolled tightly, like a cord,
exposing to our view the skin of the chest and abdomen. Soon
there appeared in large red letters raised on the surface the
word ‘DEVELOPMENT,’ which extended from the right groin
to the left shoulder, dividing the surface into two triangular
compartments. These were filled up with sprigs of flowers, resembling
fleur-de-lys. The phenomenon lasted nearly ten minutes,
when the shirt and bedclothes were unrolled gently and
replaced as they were at first.’’
In his later years Foster became addicted to alcohol. In
1881, at age 48, he was taken to Danvers Insane Asylum, suffering,
according to reports, from advanced alcoholism and softening
of the brain. For the last four years of his life he apparently
lived a vegetable existence under the care of an aunt,
simply staring into space most of the time.
A few days after his death the equally controversial psychic
Kate Fox was practicing automatic writing with her friend Mrs.
Taylor and found her hand galvanized into frantic, incoherent
messages that were signed ‘‘Charles Foster, medium.’’
Ashburner, John. Philosophy of Animal Magnetism and Spiritualism.
London, 1867.
Bartlett, George C. The Salem Seer. New York, 1891.
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn
Books, 1970.
Truesdell, John W. The Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of
Spiritualism. New York: G. W. Carleton, 1883