Raps
Percussive sounds of varying intensity without visible, known
or normal agency, a common phenomenon of nineteenthcentury
Spiritualism. Typtology was the name given to the
‘‘science’’ of communicating with spirits by means of raps.
While a simple phenomenon, raps were considered to be of tremendous
importance by nineteenth-century psychical researchers.
Charles Richet, for example, wrote in Thirty Years of
Psychical Research (1923)
‘‘The reality of these raps is of primary importance, and this
phenomenon carries the implication of the whole of metapsychics.
If it is established that mechanical vibrations can be produced
in matter, at a distance, and without contact, and that
these vibrations are intelligent, we have the truly far-reaching
fact that there are in the universe human or non-human intelligences
that can act directly on matter.’’
Modern Spiritualism began with rappings at Hydesville,
New York, in 1848 in connection with the Fox Sisters. But the
history of this paranormal manifestation reaches back into antiquity
and the belief that it was in the house of the Fox family
that intelligent contact with the unseen world through such
agency was established for the first time is shortsighted.
Historical Background
Rudolf of Fulda, a chronicle dating from 858 C.E. spoke of
communications with a rapping intelligence. The sixteenthcentury
physician Paracelsus called it ‘‘pulsatio mortuorum’’—
an omen of approaching death. The early church knew of spiritus
percutiens (rapping spirits). They were conjured away by old
Catholic formulae at the benediction of churches.
Raps were recorded by the theologian Philipp Melancthon
in 1520 at Oppenheim, Germany. Montalambert, chaplain to
François I, described raps which he heard in Lyon about 1521.
According to a manuscript from 1610 at the University of Glasgow,
Scotland, Mr. Welsh, a clergyman in Ayr, conversed with
spirits by raps and observed movements of objects without contact.
The first detailed account of the phenomenon is in Joseph
Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus (1681). It described the disturbances
of the so-called Drummer of Tedworth in the home
of Magistrate Mompesson in 1661. It was discovered that an invisible
entity would answer in drumming anything that was
beaten or called for. But no further progress was made.
The phenomenon was a part of the Epworth Phenomena
noticed at the home of Rev. Samuel Wesley, the father of John
Wesley, in 1716. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century,
Justinus Kerner detected in raps a means of conversation with
the spirit visitants of Frederica Hauffe, better known as the
Seeress of Prevorst. Then came the historic outbreak at Hydesville,
followed two years later by the Stratford disturbances
chronicled by Rev. Eliakim Phelps. Amid much public acrimony
a literature grew up around the reality of the strange knocks.
The theories which have been advanced to explain the phenomenon
are of historic interest. The cracking of knee joints
and toe joints, the snapping of fingers, and the contraction of
the respiratory muscles were variously called the scientific solution
to the mystery. S. L. Loomis (1822–1896) offered one of
the more creative theories. He discovered the effect of the vibrations
of a dam over which water plunged. These sounds,
transmitted to a distance by the earth, would produce sudden
alarming knocking sounds in dwellings.
Raps were very likely often the product of fraud. British surgeon
William Faulkner testified before the committee of the
London Dialectical Society in 1869 that he was in the habit of
selling trick magnets to produce rapping sounds at Spiritualist
séances. The magnets could be concealed about the person or
attached to furniture. By pressing a small brass button, raps
could be produced whenever desired. Methods of fraud were
described in various books by Hereward Carrington, Ed Lunt,
and David P. Abbott.
Underneath the scientific theories there was a physiological
foundation that suggested the use of a bodily mechanism of the
medium that is responsible for the raps. Still it is one of the aberrations
of scientific orthodoxy that when the Seybert Commission
investigated the raps of Margaret Fox, one of the Fox
Sisters, in 1884, the evidence for the genuine nature of the phenomenon
was ruled out because one of the members of the
committee, when placing his hand on her feet, distinctly felt an
unusual pulsation although there was not a particle of motion
in it.
Early Explanations of the Raps
But why should spirits knock and rap According to Andrew
Lang ‘‘Were we inventing a form for a spirit’s manifestation to
take, we never should invent that.’’ He frankly admitted that
medieval and later tales of rapping have never been satisfactorily
accounted for on any theory. He advanced a theory of
‘‘spectral aphasia,’’ suggesting that raps may be the easiest
signs which a spirit wishing to affect the physical plane may
produce, though he may aim at a different effect.
In the March 1888 issue of Psyche, a Dr. Purdon reported on
the curious connection he had discovered between raps and
chorea. He noted the case of two soldiers in Guernsey, both of
them of neurotic temperament, in whose presence rappings of
an unnatural character were heard. Under the administration
of iodide of potassium, salicylate of soda, and arsenic in full
doses, the men improved wonderfully, and the rappings became
less frequent.
E. Howard Grey, in his book Visions, Previsions and Miracles
in Modern Times (1915), quoted a similar experience with a
member of his own family. The attack commenced during the
cutting of a child’s permanent teeth, sometimes convulsions occurred
in the night, and these generally seized upon the little
girl about the same hour. He stated
‘‘We were usually well prepared for these nocturnal troubles
by explosive and other auditory sounds, either on the wall or
by Drs. Drury and Purdon, indeterminate or derial. Sometimes
a tinkling sound as of dropping water would be heard, but none
was visible, they occurred when the child was asleep, also in her
absence . . .
‘‘When she was in bed upstairs, they heard them in a room
below; sometimes her mother heard them sounding like little
taps on a newspaper she was reading. They did not exhibit intelligence.
The last, or departing rap was especially loud. The
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1286
cure was effected in a few months by the administration of bromide
of potassium.’’
In speaking of the curious ‘‘thrilling’’ of the table in the
presence of the great medium D. D. Home, Mrs. Augustus de
Morgan wrote in From Matter to Spirit (1863)
‘‘The last time I witnessed this phenomenon, an acute surgeon
present said that this thrilling, the genuineness of which
was unmistakable, was exactly like what takes place in that affection
of the muscles called subsultus tendinum. When it ceased
the table rose more than two feet from the floor.’’
In the closing years of the medium Henry Slade, loud raps
were heard on the bedstead, walls, and furniture while he was
asleep. Chairs and other furniture moved about. The phenomena
occurred even after he sank into senile dementia. The same
phenomenon was observed around the deathbed of Margaret
Fox. The mysterious illness of Mary Jobson started with loud
rapping sounds. When D. D. Home was ill the same manifestation
was continually witnessed. Many observed a connection between
abnormal conditions and paranormal phenomena, but
the larger percentage of such manifestations involves no bodily
affliction.
The Varieties of Rapping Experience
Simple as the phenomenon appears to be, various important
accounts reflect an astounding variety of manifestation.
John Worth Edmonds heard raps on his own person. The Rev.
Samuel Watson, a nineteenth-century British Methodist
preacher, had similar experiences. ‘‘The noise made on my
shirt bosom,’’ he wrote, ‘‘resembled more the telegraph machine
than anything else.’’ Abby Warner, of Massillon, Ohio,
was prosecuted in 1851 for disturbing the Christmas service in
St. Timothy’s Church by raps which sounded in her presence.
Considerable excitement was caused in New York in 1871
in the prominent Brooklyn, New York, congregation of Henry
Ward Beecher. In front of the rostrum at the reporter’s table,
raps were heard for a succession of Sabbaths, and slow and deliberate
motion of the table was witnessed. Eugene Crowell reported
that it kept time with the preacher’s words and assented
to Beecher’s demands for reform with great pushes and movement
to the opposite side of the sanctuary as if to say ‘‘That’s
so, that is the truth.’’
Leah Underhill, the eldest of the Fox Sisters, wrote in her
book The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism (1885) that during
the funeral of Calvin Brown, her second husband, raps were
heard all over the room while S. B. Brittan delivered the funeral
sermon and Edmonds the eulogy.
Robert Dale Owen recorded some very curious experiments
in raps with Underhill in 1861. He heard raps on the seaside
in a ledge of rock. ‘‘Placing my hands on the same ledge, a few
steps from Mrs. Underhill and asking for raps, when this came
audibly I felt, simultaneously with each rap, a slight but unmistakably
distinct vibration or concussion of the rock.’’ Owen
heard raps onboard an excursion boat and later in a sailing
boat sounding from underneath. He also obtained them in the
open air on the ground; ‘‘a dull sound, as of blows struck on the
earth; then I asked Mrs. Underhill to touch one of the trees
with the tips of her fingers and applying my ear to the tree I
heard the raps from beneath the bark.’’ In an account of a séance
on February 22, 1860, in which psychic lights were seen,
Owen wrote
‘‘While I was looking intently at such a light, about as large
as a small fist, it rose and fell, as a hammer would, with which
one was striking against the floor. At each stroke a loud rap was
heard in connection. It was exactly as if an invisible hand held
an illuminated hammer and pounded with it.’’
As to the objectivity of the raps produced by Kate Fox, Sir
William Crookes argued,
‘‘ . . . it seems only necessary for her to place her hand on
any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation,
sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off.
In this manner I have heard them in a living tree—on a sheet
of glass—on a stretched iron wire—on a stretched membrane—a
tambourine—on the roof of a cab—and on the floor
of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary.
I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, &c.
when the medium’s hands and feet were held—when she was
standing on a chair—when she was suspended in a swing from
the ceiling—when she was enclosed in a wire cage—and when
she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass
harmonium—I have felt them on my own shoulder and under
my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between
the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner.’’
The membrane of which Crookes spoke was part of a complicated
apparatus. A small piece of graphite was placed on it
so as to be thrown upward by the slightest jar. The point of a
lever registered in curves the amount of mechanical energy employed
in the effect.
As to the sounds, Crookes observed
‘‘. . . delicate ticks, as with the point of a pin; a cascade of
sharp sounds as from an induction coil in full work; detonations
in the air; sharp, metallic taps; a cracking like that heard when
a frictional machine is at work; sounds like scratching; the twittering
as of a bird, &c.’’
‘‘We have been present with Kate Fox,’’ wrote J. J. Morse in
The Two Worlds newspaper (vol. 19) ‘‘when the raps were heard
on a sheet of paper, held between the thumb and forefinger of
another person standing beside the medium, the paper visibly
shaking from the violence of the raps produced upon its surface.’’
Lord Adare’s father, in experiments with D. D. Home,
heard raps upon the medium’s hand when he placed it upon
his head. Raps came on a sheet of paper which they held by the
corners. Adare heard raps under his feet and distinctly felt the
jar while the raps were taking place. He saw a table leg rap. The
spirits by raps joined into their conversation and signified approval
in a most emphatic way. Adare was told to understand
that by remaining in the earth’s atmosphere, spirits get so
charged that it is a positive relief to make sounds. Sometimes
they cannot help rapping, and cannot control them. They discharge
their electricity by a whole volley of taps.
The sounds may be single or combined knockings. ‘‘It was
the most singular noise,’’ wrote William Stainton Moses on December
5, 1873, ‘‘that the combined knockings made. The
room seemed to be full of intelligences manifesting their presence.’’
The sounds had distinct individuality. They had characteristics
as permanent as the voice, and the communicator
could often be recognized by his rapping style.
Dr. J. Garth Wilkinson wrote of an inward thrill going
through the table and chairs and found the sensation best conveyed
by the exclamation of his daughter ‘‘Oh, papa, there is
a heart in my chair.’’
‘‘The departure of the spirits,’’ wrote J. H. Powell in Spiritualism;
Its Facts and Phases (1864), ‘‘was preceded by an indistinguishable
number of raps, loud at first, then gradually faint and
fainter until, like echoes on a hill, they faded away in the echoing
distance.’’
In volume, the sounds may grow from a tiny tick to a loud
crash. But the crashing blows leave no mark, although normally
such force would be expected to smash the table. The tonality
of the raps differs according to the object upon which they resound.
They may resemble the slight noises made by a mouse,
a fretsaw, or the scratching of a fingernail on wood or cloth, and
their rhythm is as varied as their tonality.
They often sound like detonations. There are instances in
which the impression is borne out by effect. Archdeacon Thomas
Colley, in a slate-writing experiment with the medium
Francis W. Monck, placed his foot on the slate and felt a sensation
of throbbing in the enclosed space—a heaving as when the
confined steam lifts the lid of a kettle—and in a moment, an
explosion took place that scattered the slate in fragments over
the carpet, like spray from a fountain. Such explosions and
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shatterings of the slate were frequently reported in séances with
the medium Henry Slade.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the co-founder of the Theosophical
Society, was a powerful rapping medium in her teens.
While later accused of reproducing Spiritualist tricks, she was
said to have caused raps inside the spectacles of a skeptical professor
with such force that they were sent flying from his nose.
In reply to a somewhat frivolous woman who asked what was
the best conductor for raps, the table spelt out ‘‘gold,’’ and the
next moment the lady in question rushed out of the room with
her hand clapped on her mouth, as she had felt the raps on the
gold in her artificial teeth.
Joseph Maxwell obtained raps in restaurants and railway
refreshment rooms which were loud enough to attract public
attention. In his book Metapsychical Phenomena (1905), he described
experiences of ‘‘Doctor X.’’ with the medium Meurice
‘‘The raps on the open umbrella are extremely curious. We
have heard raps on the woodwork and on the silk at one and
the same time; it is easy to perceive that the shock actually occurs
in the wood—that the molecules of the latter are set in motion.
The same thing occurs with the silk, and here observation
is even more interesting still; and each rap looks like a drop of
some invisible liquid falling on the silk from a respectable
height. The stretched silk of the umbrella is quickly and slightly
but surely dented in; sometimes the force with which the raps
are given is such as to shake the umbrella. Nothing is more absorbing
than the observation of an apparent conversation—by
means of the umbrella—between the medium’s personifications.
Raps, imitating a burst of laughter in response to the observer’s
remarks, resound on the silk, like the rapid play of
strong but tiny fingers. When raps on the umbrella are forthcoming,
M. Meurice either holds the handle of the umbrella,
or someone else does, whilst he simply touches the handle very
lightly with his open palm. He never touches the silk.’’
Maxwell concluded,
‘‘(1) Every muscular movement, even a feeble one, is generally
followed by a rap. (2) The intensity of the raps does not
strike me as being in proportion with the movement made. (3)
The intensity of the raps did not seem to me to vary proportionately
according to their distance from the medium.’’
He questioned mediums about their sensations when raps
were being produced. They acknowledged a feeling of fatigue,
of depletion, after a good séance, a feeling perceptible to observers.
One of the mediums reported a cramp-like feeling in
the epigastric region when the raps were particularly loud.
In From Matter to Spirit (1863), the wife of Augustus de Morgan
wrote that once, through typtological communication (i.e.,
through raps), she was informed that raps would come through
herself that day.
‘‘This was not expected but it was worth trying, and I therefore
went into an uncarpeted room barely furnished, and sat
down by the table, on which I laid my arm. Very soon loud raps,
which I called some of the family to hear, resounded on the
table. There seemed to be power enough to rap the number of
times desired, but not to indicate letters so as to spell anything.
The sounds soon ceased and never returned. As each rap
seemed to be shot through my arm it was accompanied by a
feeling like a slight blow or shock of electricity and an aching
pain extending from the shoulder to the hand, which remained
for more than an hour after they had entirely ceased. This experiment
seemed to prove that the nerves of the human body
were necessary, if not for the production, at least for the propagation
of the sounds.
In the experiments of W. J. Crawford, the loudness of the
raps varied with weight and massiveness of the psychic ‘‘rods.’’
Crawford put the medium, later discovered to be producing
phenomena by trickery, on a weighing machine and measured
the exact amount of ectoplasm necessary for the increase of
rapping strength. He also found that the raps reacted upon the
medium’s body but that she was not conscious of any stress. The
reaction, however, was not always the case, as he noted
‘‘As soon as the séance begins, we hear noises, raps, rap, rap
on the floor near the medium. They become louder and
louder, on the table, on the chairs of the sitters. Sometimes they
are like hammerblows, so loud that they can be heard outside,
and they shake the floor and the chairs. They can imitate any
different sounds, the step of a man, the trot of a horse, the rubbing
of a match, or the bouncing of a ball.’’
Sir William F. Barrett, who like Crawford also sat in the
Goligher circle, wrote in On the Threshold of the Unseen (1917)
‘‘Very soon knocks came and messages were spelt out as one of
us repeated the alphabet aloud. Suddenly the knocks increased
in violence, and being encouraged, a tremendous bang came
which shook the room and resembled the blow of a sledge hammer
on an anvil.
In Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 17,
p. 726), a case of rapping was described by a Mrs. Davis who
had received a letter from India with the request to forward it
to a Mrs. W. She placed the letter on the mantelpiece. Some
time after, raps were heard. They seemed to emanate from the
neighborhood of the letter. She placed it on another spot. The
raps followed the letter. It was discovered afterward that the letter
had some urgency attached to it as it announced the death
of Mrs. W.’s husband.
James H. Hyslop, in a sitting with a young non-professional
female medium, heard loud raps in a closed piano. He wrote,
in Contact with the Other World (1919)
‘‘After getting raps under her feet I had her stand on a very
thick cushion. When she was standing on the cushion, which
was at least six or eight inches thick, the raps occurred exactly
as before, with the same quality of sound. If made by the joints,
the raps would have been muffled when the feet were on the
cushion. I then had her stand with a foot on each of my hands,
which rested on the cushion, and the raps occurred apparently
on the floor with the same quality of sound as when her feet
were on the floor. I then tried the steam radiator some distance
away, and the rap had a metallic ring, as if on iron. I then tried
the piano experiment again. . . . The raps were very loud, and
made the string ring so that the sound could be heard perhaps
a hundred feet away.’’
Again Barrett, in his On the Threshold of the Unseen, observed
‘‘On one occasion I asked for the raps to come on a small
table near me, which Florrie [the medium] was not touching,
they did so; I then placed one of my hands on the upper and
the other on the under surface of the table, and in this position
I felt the slight jarring made by the raps on the part of the table
enclosed between my hands. It made no difference whether
Florrie and I were alone in the room, as was often the case, or
other observers were called in.’’
The distance to which the sound of raps carry may be considerable.
In Southend, England, metallic raps produced on
the rail in the presence of Moses and Dr. Stanhope T. Speer
were audible to both of them when they were seventy yards
apart. The raps were apparently made in the space between
them.
An interesting non-psychic method of procuring raps was
described in Psychic Research (February 1930) by John E.
Springer, a attorney from Palo Alto, California
‘‘In one face of a small cardboard box I cut an aperture the
size and shape of my ear. When fitted to the ear the box sticks
on securely and becomes a sort of sounding board. Upon retiring
I affix the box to the ear which is not to rest on the pillow,
and I will as strongly as possible that as I fall asleep I shall be
awakened by a given series of raps upon the cardboard. It frequently—but
not always—happens that when I reach the stage
of drowsiness where unconsciousness is about to supervene,
loud and clear raps upon the box in the predetermined series
bring me back to wakefulness with a start. The raps may be subjective,
but it is difficult for one who experiences them to escape
from the conviction that they are objective psychic raps.’’
The medium Eusapia Palladino frequently rapped a certain
number of times on the table with her fingers. Holding her
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hands about eighteen inches above the table the faint echoes
of the raps were heard in the wood about two seconds later. She
produced the same phenomenon with scratching sounds.
In the séances with Mina A. Crandon (‘‘Margery’’), the first
raps were faint but definite, sounding like something soft inside
a wooden box. Dr. Crandon listened to them through a
stethoscope applied to the table. They were so magnified as to
be unlike anything in his experience. Later they developed to
such a degree that the control ‘‘Walter’’ could render tunes or
rhythmical phrases with a marked syncopation upon the cabinet,
the table, the arm of ‘‘Margery,’’ the hands of the sitters,
and even on the limited surface of a ring. Once he rapped out
a popular tune unknown in his day and answered in explanation
that they (the spirits) go everywhere, to our theaters and
other places.
There are some rare cases on record in which raps were produced
in the distance. The Seeress of Prevorst (Frederica Hauffe)
could cause raps in the houses of others. There were similar
testimonies in the mediumship of D. D. Home. Cromwell
Fleetwood Varley stated before the London Dialectical Society
that he heard raps in his home after his arrival from a séance
with D. D. Home. The next morning he received a letter from
Home which disclosed that the medium knew of the occurrence.
Countess Panaigai wrote in a letter to Human Nature (vol.
11) that in a sitting with Home the name of her deceased child
was rapped out and that Home predicted the hearing of raps
in her own house. The prediction not only came true, but when
a friend called her attention to it she found the little boot of her
child (kept in a locked box in a bureau) from which the raps appeared
to proceed, imprinted by a perfect star with a letter at
each of the six points forming the name ‘‘Stella,’’ as the deceased
was called. Not even the family of the Countess knew
anything of the box and Home, to whom she was an utter
stranger, was never in her house.
Interconnection of Psychic Phenomena
According to the hypothesis of spirit communication, raps
represent the most primitive form of such communication.
They may be manifest independently or through the faculties
of a psychic individual. They may be obtained collectively
through table-tipping or table-turning, in which a group sits
round a table with their hands resting on it, and the raps indicate
a letter of the alphabet, or a simple ‘‘yes’’ or ‘‘no’’ by one
rap or two. This is a slow and tedious procedure.
Much more rapid communication is established through
such simple devices as the ouija board or the planchette. Much
swifter and more direct is automatic writing, in which the communicating
entity operates the hand of the psychic.
In the presence of specially gifted mediums, direct writing
by spirit hands has been reported. More direct still are the messages
received vocally through a medium and, in rare instances,
direct voice independent of the vocal apparatus of the
medium.
It is not always clear if claimed spirit messages are the product
of the subconscious mentation of the medium or the sitters,
since fictitious entities can be created in séances (see ‘‘Philip’’).
Evaluation depends upon the detail and overall paranormal
quality of the evidence in individual cases.
Sources
Abbott, David P. Behind the Scenes With the Mediums. LaSalle,
Ill. Open Court, 1907.
Brownson, Orestes Augustus. The Spirit-Rapper. Boston Little,
Brown, 1854.
Carrington, Hereward. The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism.
Boston Small; London T. Werner Laurie, 1907.
Crowell, Eugene. Identity of Primitive Christianity and Modern
Spiritualism. 2 vols. 1875–79.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. 2 vols. London
Cassell New York Geo. H. Doran, 1926. One volume. Reprint,
New York Arno Press, 1975.
Jackson, Herbert G., Jr. The Spirit Rappers. Garden City,
N.Y. Doubleday, 1972.
Lang, Andrew. Cock Lane and Common-Sense. London Longmans,
Green, 1896. Reprint, New York AMS Press, 1970.
A Medium [Ed Lunt]. Mysteries of the Séance. Boston Lunt
Brothers, 1905.
Pearsall, Ronald. Table-Rappers. London Joseph, 1972. Reprint,
New York St. Martin’s Press, 1973.
Rochester Knockings! Discovery and Explanation of the Source of
the Phenomena Generally Known as the Rochester Knockings. Buffalo,
N.Y., 1851.
‘‘A Searcher After Truth.’’ The Rappers; or, the Mysteries, Fallacies,
and Absurdities of Spirit Rapping, Table-Tipping and Entrancement.
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