Psychometry
A faculty, claimed by many psychics and mediums, of becoming
aware of the characters, surroundings, or events connected
with an individual by holding or touching an object,
such as a watch or ring, that the individual possessed or that
was strongly identified with the person. Medium Hester Dowden
described psychometry as ‘‘a psychic power possessed by
certain individuals which enables them to divine the history of,
or events connected with, a material object with which they
come in close contact.’’
No doubt such an ability has been manifest from ancient
times, but it was first named and discussed in modern history
by the American scientist Joseph Rhodes Buchanan in 1842.
The term derives from the Greek psyche (soul) and metron (measure)
and signifies ‘‘soul-measuring,’’ or measurement by the
human soul. Buchanan’s theory was based on the belief that everything
that has ever existed—every object, scene, or event
that has occurred since the beginning of the world—has left on
the ether, or astral light, a trace of its being. This trace is indelible
while the world endures and is impressed not only on the
ether but on more palpable objects, such as trees and stones.
Sounds and perfumes also leave impressions on their surroundings,
said Buchanan. Just as a photograph may be taken
on film or plate and remain invisible until it has been developed,
so may those psychometric ‘‘photographs’’ remain impalpable
until the developing process has been applied. That
which can bring them to light is the psychic faculty and mind
of the medium, he said.
Buchanan claimed that this faculty operated in conjunction
with what he termed a community of sensation of varying intensity.
The psychometric effect of medicines in Buchanan’s experiments
as a physician was similar to their ordinary action.
When an emetic was handed to a subject, the subject could only
avoid vomiting by suspending the experiment. Buchanan’s earliest
experiments, with his own students, showed that some of
them were able to distinguish different metals merely by holding
them in their hands. Later he found that some among them
could diagnose a patient’s disease simply by holding his hand.
Many of his acquaintances, on pressing a letter against their
foreheads, could tell the character and surroundings of the
writer, the circumstances under which the letter was written,
and other details.
Many mediums who have practiced psychometry have since
become famous in this line. As has been said, their method is
to hold in the hand or place against the forehead some small
object, such as a fragment of clothing, a letter, or a watch; appropriate
visions are then seen or sensations experienced.
While on rare occasions a psychometrist may be entranced,
normally he or she is in a condition scarcely varying from the
normal. The psychometric pictures, presumably somehow imprinted
on the objects, have been likened to pictures carried in
the memory, seemingly faded, yet ready to start into vividness
when the right spring is touched. Some have suggested, for example,
that the rehearsal of bygone tragedies so frequently witnessed
in haunted houses is really a psychometric picture that,
during the original occurrence, impressed itself on the room.
The same may be said of the sounds and smells that haunt certain
houses.
The psychological effect of the experimental objects appears
to be very strong. When a Mrs. Cridge, William Denton’s
subject, examined a piece of lava from the Kilauea volcano she
was seized with terror and the feeling did not pass for more
than an hour.
On examining a fragment of a mastodon tooth, Elizabeth
Denton said,
‘‘My impression is that it is a part of some monstrous animal,
probably part of a tooth. I feel like a perfect monster, with
heavy legs, unwieldy head, and very large body. I go down to
a shallow stream to drink. I can hardly speak, my jaws are so
heavy. I feel like getting down on all fours. What a noise comes
through the wood! I have an impulse to answer it. My ears are
very large and leathery, and I can almost fancy they flap my
face as I move my head. There are some older ones than I. It
seems, too, so out of keeping to be talking with these heavy
jaws. They are dark brown, as if they had been completely
tanned. There is one old fellow, with large tusks, that looks very
tough. I see several young ones; in fact, there is a whole herd.’’
She derived further impressions from a fragment of a meteorite
‘‘It carries my eyes right up. I see an appearance of misty
light. I seem to go miles and miles very quickly, up and up.
Streams of light come from the right, a great way off. . . . Light
shining at a vast distance.’’
Some negative impressions can prostrate the psychic and
cause illness. On occasion, if the impressions are too antagonistic,
the psychic will refuse to handle the object. Some psyEncyclopedia
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1257
chometrists have been known, when given an object belonging
to a deceased person, to take on the personal appearance and
mannerisms of the owner and even to suffer from his or her ailments.
Eugene Crowell, in The Identity of Primitive Christianity and
Modern Spiritualism (2 vols., 1875–79), writes of a sentry box in
Paris in which the sentry on duty committed suicide by hanging.
Another soldier was assigned to the same duty, and within
three weeks took his life by similar means. Still another succeeded
to the post, and in a short time met a similar fate. When
these events were reported to Emperor Louis Napoleon, he ordered
the sentry box removed and destroyed.
There are many instances on record in which corpses have
been traced through psychometric influence. Attempts have
also been made to employ it in criminology with varying results.
In his book Thirty Years of Psychical Research (1923),
Charles Richet narrates the experience of a Dr. Dufay with a
nonprofessional somnambulist called Marie. He handed her
something in several folds of paper. She said that the paper
contained something that had killed a man. A rope No. A
necktie, she continued. The necktie had belonged to a prisoner
who hanged himself because he had committed a murder, killing
his victim with a gouet (a woodman’s hatchet). Marie indicated
the spot where the gouet was thrown on the ground. The
gouet was found in the place indicated.
While most psychometrists give their readings in a normal
state, a few are hypnotized. Maria Reyes de Z. of Mexico, with
whom Gustav Pagenstecher conducted a series of successful
experiments, belongs to the latter class. From a shell picked up
on the beach of Vera Cruz she gave the following reading ‘‘I
am under water and feel a great weight pressing upon my body.
I am surrounded by fishes of all kinds, colors, shapes, and sizes.
I see white and pink coral. I also see different kinds of plants,
some of them with large leaves. The water has a dark green,
transparent colour. I am among the creatures but they do not
seem to notice my presence, as they are not afraid of me in spite
of touching me as they pass by.’’
Many psychometrists in the Spiritualist community have asserted
that they are simply instruments and that spirits do the
reading. Trance mediums often ask for objects belonging to the
dead to establish contact. It was a habit with Leonora Piper.
But other psychics, like Pascal Forthuny, repudiated the theory
of spirit intervention and considered psychometry a personal
gift, a sensitivity to the influence of the objects possessed.
This influence, or emanation, was likened by Waldemar Wasielawski
to the ‘‘rhabdic force’’ that he believed bends the rod
of the water-witcher while dowsing.
William T. Stead suggested that very slight contact would
suffice to impart such personal influence. On one occasion he
cut pieces of blank paper from the bottom pages of letters of
eminent people, just below the signature of each, and sent
them to a Miss Ross marked ‘‘No. 1. Lady,’’ ‘‘No. 2. Gentleman.’’
The readings were very successful (see Stead’s journal,
Borderland, October 1895).
The psychometric vision sometimes comes in quickly
flashed images and requires an effort of will to slow down, say
mediums. Acccording to D’Aute Hooper in Spirit Psychometry,
‘‘It would be impossible to follow up and write the impressions
as they pass through my consciousness. It is far too rapid. They
are like cinematographic pictures. I seem to fly, and at other
times I seem to be the piece of stone, without thinking power
but seeing things and happenings around me.’’
The scope of the visions has been described as small or encompassing
the whole room. There is no definite order in their
emergence. The picture is kaleidoscopic, there is an oscillation
in periods of time, but the images of more important events
seem to have better sway, say mediums.
The exercise of the faculty requires a relaxed, receptive
mind. After the object is touched, some psychometrists feel
they are immediately at the location; others mentally travel
there first. Some may tear off a piece of paper from an envelope
and put it into their mouths. Others are satisfied to handle
an object, or hold it wrapped up in their hands.
As a rule, a clue containing an ‘‘influence’’ is indispensable
for psychometric readings. But experiments with exceptional
psychics led Joseph Buchanan to the conclusion that the clue
may be supplanted by an index, for instance, by a name written
on a piece of paper. Such cases appear to be rare.
It is usually said that a medium cannot get a reading for
himself or herself by psychometry. An incident told some years
ago in the journal Light is therefore very interesting. E. A. Cannock
was handed, without her knowing the origin, a broad
piece of elastic that was actually her own. She not only gave a
character reading of herself, but also made a prediction that
proved to be correct.
It is said that the image of engravings is retained by the glass
and that by some processes, such as the use of mercury vapor,
this image can be developed. There is a suggestion of some
similar effect in an incident related by Elizabeth Denton. She
had entered a car from which the passengers had gone to dinner
and was surprised to see all the seats occupied. She later recalled
‘‘Many of them were sitting perfectly composed, as if, for
them, little interest was attached to this station, while others
were already in motion (a kind of compressed motion), as if
preparing to leave. I thought this was somewhat strange, and
was about turning to find a vacant seat in another car, when a
second glance around showed me that the passengers who had
appeared so indifferent were really losing their identity, and,
in a moment more, were invisible to me. I had sufficient time
to note the personal appearance of several; and taking a seat,
I awaited the return of the passengers, thinking it more than
probable I might find them the prototypes of the faces and
forms I had a moment before so singularly beheld. Nor was I
disappointed. A number of those who returned to the cars I recognized
as being, in every particular, the counterparts of their
late, but transient representatives.’’
Psychometric impressions may come so spontaneously as to
seriously distract the medium in the daily course of life. The
British medium Bessie Williams complained of this trouble.
The Dutch psychometrist Lotte Plaat said she could not go into
the British Museum in London because she felt that the exhibits
were literally shouting their history. By a strong effort of will,
however, such impressions can usually be dispelled.
Buchanan made a suggestion to test direct writing by spirits
by submitting it to psychometric reading. He thought that if the
writing was purely the product of the medium, the reading
would give the medium’s character; if not, the character of the
spirit author would be described. The experiments were unsuccessful,
however, because he had seemingly overlooked the
complications of the ectoplasm from which the ‘‘spirit’’ hand
was said to be formed. If the writing was done by a materialized
hand built out of the bodily substance of the medium, it might
bear as little impression of the spirit as a dictated text bears of
the dictator, he reasoned.
As already mentioned, psychometry has been utilized to
gain information about hauntings. ‘‘That the victim of some
century old villainy,’’ writes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his
book The Edge of the Unknown (1930), ‘‘should still in her ancient
garments frequent in person the scene of her former martyrdom,
is indeed, hard to believe. It is more credible, little as
we understand the details, that some thought-form is used and
remains visible at the spot where great mental agony has been
endured.’’ But he was not unmindful of the difficulties of such
speculation, adding, ‘‘Why such a thought-form should only
come at certain hours, I am compelled to answer that I do not
know.’’ The psychometric impression should always be there
and should always be perceived, if the theory is correct. The
ghost apparently is not; its ways are strange.
Psychometry Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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Searching for Explanations
Psychometry was identified by Buchanan and entered into
the terminology of Spiritualism at a time when a somewhat
elaborate and detailed understanding of the spirit world was
being conceived in order to explain the many varied phenomena
emerging in the séance room. Many of these ideas were offered
in an attempt to explain one mystery, such as psychometry,
by another, such as ectoplasm. Much of that speculation
disappeared along with the mass of physical phenomena. Stephan
Ossowiecki, a prominent modern psychometrist, has
noted correctly that should the psychometric speculation be
even partially true, it would explain nothing. Psychometry is
just a word and not an explanation, he said. Its essential nature,
its exercise, is a mystery. He writes
‘‘I begin by stopping all reasoning, and I throw all my inner
power into perception of spiritual sensation. I affirm that this
condition is brought about by my unshakable faith in the spiritual
unity of all humanity. I then find myself in a new and special
state in which I see and hear outside time and space. . . .
Whether I am reading a sealed letter, or finding a lost object,
or psychometrising, the sensations are nearly the same. I seem
to lose some energy; my temperature becomes febrile, and the
heartbeats unequal. I am confirmed in this supposition because,
as soon as I cease from reasoning, something like electricity
flows through my extremities for a few seconds. This lasts
a moment only, and then lucidity takes possession of me, pictures
arise, usually of the past. I see the man who wrote the letter,
and I know what he wrote. I see the object at the moment
of its loss, with the details of the event; or again, I perceive or
feel the history of the thing I am holding in my hands. The vision
is misty and needs great tension. Considerable effort is required
to perceive some details and conditions of the scenes
presented. The lucid state sometimes arises in a few minutes,
and sometimes it takes hours of waiting. This largely depends
on the surroundings; skepticism, incredulity, or even attention
too much concentrated on my person, paralyses quick success
in reading or sensation.’’
Illuminating as this subjective account is, it conveys little
about the specific nature of psychometric influence. Gustav Pagenstecher
conjectured as follows
‘‘The associated object which practically witnessed certain
events of the past, acting in the way of a tuning fork, automatically
starts in our brain the specific vibrations corresponding to
the said events; furthermore, the vibrations of our brain once
being set in tune with certain parts of the Cosmic Brain already
stricken by the same events, call forth sympathetic vibrations
between the human brain and the Cosmic Brain, giving birth
to thought pictures which reproduce the events in question.’’
Spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in plainer language,
compared psychometric impressions to shadows on a screen.
The screen is the ether, ‘‘the whole material universe being embedded
in and interpenetrated by this subtle material which
would not necessarily change its position since it is too fine for
wind or any coarser material to influence it.’’ Doyle himself, although
by no means psychic, would always be conscious of a
strange effect—almost a darkening of the landscape with a
marked sense of heaviness—when he was on an old battlefield.
A more familiar example of the same faculty may be suspected
in the gloom that gathers over the mind of even an average
person upon entering certain houses. Such sensitivity may find
expression in more subtle and varied forms. ‘‘Is not the emotion
felt on looking at an old master [painting] a kind of
thought transference from the departed’’ asked Sir Oliver
Lodge. The query cannot be answered conclusively, since the
labels attached to psychic phenomena are purely arbitrary.
Akashic Records
Attempts at such a synthesis have been made by Theosophists.
In his introduction to W. Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis
and the Lost Lemuria (1904), the first book drawn from the socalled
akashic records, A. P. Sinnett explains that the pictures
of memory are imprinted on some nonphysical medium; they
are photographed by nature on some imperishable page of superphysical
matter. They are accessible, but the interior spiritual
capacities of ordinary humanity are as yet too imperfectly developed
to establish touch, he says. He further notes
‘‘But in a flickering fashion, we have experience in ordinary
life of efforts that are a little more effectual. Thoughttransference
is a humble example. In that case, ‘impressions on
the mind’ of one person, Nature’s memory pictures with which
he is in normal relationship, are caught up by someone else
who is just able, however unconscious of the method he uses,
to range Nature’s memory under favourable conditions a little
beyond the area with which he himself is in normal relationship.
Such a person has begun, however slightly, to exercise the
faculty of astral clairvoyance.’’
Such highly speculative ideas are beyond the scope of psychical
research, but the concept of the akashic records in its
philosophical depths can be partly supported by an astronomical
analogy. Because of the vastness of interstellar distances it
takes hundreds of thousands of years for light, traveling at the
enormous speed of 186,000 miles per second, to reach us from
distant stars. Anyone who could look at the Earth from such a
distant star would witness, at the present moment, the primeval
past. From various distances the creation of our world could be
seen as a present reality. Theoretically, therefore, astronomy
admits the existence of a scenic record of the world’s history.
The concept of this cosmic picture gallery and that of the
akashic records is similar.
There is no generally validated method of access to such records
in sublimated psychometry. However, Theosophist G. R.
S. Mead, in his book Did Jesus Live 100 B.C. (1903), asserted the
following regarding akashic research
‘‘It would be as well to have it understood that the method
of investigation to which I am referring does not bring into
consideration any question of trance, either self-induced, or
mesmerically or hypnotically effected. As far as I can judge, my
colleagues are to all outward seeming in quite their normal
state. They go through no outward ceremonies, or internal
ones for that matter, nor even any outward preparation but
that of assuming a comfortable position; moreover, they not
only describe, as each normally has the power of description,
what is passing before their inner vision in precisely the same
fashion as one would describe some objective scene, but they
are frequently as surprised as their auditors that the scenes or
events they are attempting to explain are not at all as they expected
to see them, and remark on them as critically, and frequently
as sceptically, as those who cannot ‘see’ for themselves
but whose knowledge of the subject from objective study may
be greater than theirs.’’
Simultaneous Perception of ‘‘Memory Records’’
One need not go to occultists for psychic experiences in
which there is a clear suggestion of memory records existing independently
of individual powers of cognition. Something of
that nature has been perceived by several people simultaneously,
thus suggesting some sort of objectivity.
The Battle of Edge Hill (on the borders of Warwickshire and
Oxfordshire, England) was fought on October 22, 1624. Two
months later a number of shepherds and village people witnessed
an aerial reenactment of the battle with all the noises of
the guns, the neighing of the horses and the groans of the
wounded. The vision lasted for hours and was witnessed by people
of reputation for several consecutive days. When rumors of
it reached the ears of Charles I, a commission was sent out to
investigate. The commission not only reported having seen the
vision on two occasions, but actually recognized fallen friends
of theirs among the fighters; one was Sir Edmund Varney.
A similar instance was recorded by Pausanias (second century
B.C.E.), according to whom on the plains of Marathon, four
hundred years after the great battle, the neighing of horses, the
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shouts of the victors, the cries of the vanquished, and all the
noise of a well-contested conflict, were frequently to be heard.
Patrick Walker, the Scottish Presbyterian covenanter, is
quoted in Biographia Presbyteriana (1827) as stating that in 1686,
about two miles below Lanark, on the water of Clyde, ‘‘many
people gathered together for several afternoons, where there
were showers of bonnets, hats, guns and swords, which covered
the trees and ground, companies of men in arms marching in
order, upon the waterside, companies meeting companies . . .
and then all falling to the ground and disappearing, and other
companies immediately appearing in the same way.’’ But Patrick
Walker himself saw nothing unusual occur. About twothirds
of the crowd saw the phenomena; the others saw nothing
strange. ‘‘Patrick Walker’s account,’’ states Andrew Lang in his
book Cock Lane and Common Sense (1896), ‘‘is triumphantly honest
and is, perhaps, as odd a piece of psychology as any on record,
thanks to his escape from the prevalent illusion, which,
no doubt, he would gladly have shared.’’
Under the pseudonyms Miss Morrison and Miss Lamont,
Anne Moberly, daughter of the bishop of Salisbury, and Eleanor
Jourdain published in 1911 a remarkable book entitled An
Adventure, in which they claim that in 1901 and 1902 they had
a simultaneous vision, on the grounds of Versailles, of the place
as it was in 1789. Some time after the first publication of their
account of their Versailles adventure, testimony was given by
people who lived in the neighborhood of Versailles that they
also had seen the mysterious appearances, the strange phenomena
being witnessed only on the anniversary of the attack
on Versailles during the French Revolution. The most inexplicable
feature of the story is that the people of the eighteenth
century saw, heard, and spoke to the people of the twentieth
century, who never doubted at the time that they were in communication
with real individuals.
Psychometric Premonitions
Another class of phenomena could be classified as psychometric
foreshadowings of the future. The report on the Census
of Hallucinations made by the Society for Psychical Research
in Great Britain in 1889 recorded one incident concerning a
solitary excursion to a lake. The individual noted
‘‘My attention was quite taken up with the extreme beauty
of the scene before me. There was not a sound or movement,
except the soft ripple of the water on the sand at my feet. Presently
I felt a cold chill creep through me, and a curious stiffness
of my limbs, as if I could not move, though wishing to do so.
I felt frightened, yet chained to the spot, and as if impelled to
stare at the water straight in front of me. Gradually a black
cloud seemed to rise, and in the midst of it I saw a tall man, in
a suit of tweed, jump into the water and sink. In a moment the
darkness was gone, and I again became sensible of the heat and
sunshine, but I was awed and felt eery. . . . A week afterwards
Mr. Espie, a bank clerk (unknown to me) committed suicide by
drowning in that very spot. He left a letter for his wife, indicating
that he had for some time contemplated death.’’
Princess Karadja narrates in the Zeitschrift für Metapsychische
Forschung (March 15, 1931) a story of a personal experience of
the late Count Buerger Moerner that contains this incident
‘‘Passing through the little garden and glancing in at the
window as he approached the house (looking for public refreshment)
the Count was horrified to see the body of an old
woman hanging from a ceiling beam. He burst into the room
with a cry of horror, but once across the threshold was stunned
with amazement to find the old woman rising startled from her
chair, demanding the reason of his surprising intrusion. No
hanging body was to be seen and the old lady herself was not
only very much alive, but indignant as well. . . . Some days
later, being again in that locality, he decided to visit the hut
once more, curious to see if by some peculiarity of the window
pane he might not have been observing an optical illusion.
Nearing the hut through the garden as before, the same terrible
sight met his eye. This time, however, the Count stood for
some minutes studying the picture, then after some hesitation
knocked at the door. No answer, even to repeated knocks, until
at length Count Moerner opened the door and entered to find
what he saw this time was no vision. The old woman’s body was
indeed hanging from the beam. She had committed suicide.’’
Psychometry remains a popular practice in both psychic and
Spiritualist circles. There has been little work done on it in
parapsychology since it is difficult to quantify results and many
consider it but a variation on clairvoyance. It may also be seen
as merely a helpful tool to assist the psychic into the proper
state for receiving clairvoyant impressions.
Sources
Buchanan, J. Rhodes. Manual of Psychometry The Dawn of a
New Civilization. Boston Dudley M. Holman, 1885.
Butler, W. E. How to Develop Psychometry. London Aquarian
Press; New York Samuel Weiser, 1971.
Denton, William, and Elizabeth Denton. Nature’s Secrets, or
Psychometric Researches. London Houston & Wright, 1863.
Ellis, Ida. Thoughts on Psychometry. Blackpool, England,
1899.
[Hooper, T. D’Aute]. Spirit Psychometry and Trance Communications
by Unseen Agencies. London Rider, 1914.
Pagenstecher, Gustav. ‘‘Past Events Seership.’’ Proceedings of
the American Society for Psychical Research 16 (January 1922).
Prince, Walter Franklin. ‘‘Psychometrical Experiments with
Senora Maria Reyes de Z.’’ Proceedings of the American Society
for Psychical Research 15 (1921).
Richet, Charles. Thirty Years of Psychical Research. N.p., 1923.
Verner, A. Practical Psychometry (pamphlet). Blackpool, England,
1903.