Seybert Commission
A commission for the investigation of Spiritualism, appointed
by the wish of Henry Seybert, a Philadelphia Spiritualist
who, in his will, left $60,000 to the University of Pennsylvania
to be devoted ‘‘to the maintenance of a chair in the said
University to be known as the ‘Adam Seybert Chair of Moral
and Intellectual Philosophy,’ upon the condition that the incumbent
of the said chair, either individually or in conjunction
with a commission of the university faculty will make a thorough
and impartial investigation of all systems of morals, religion,
or philosophy which assume to represent the truth, and
particularly of Modern Spiritualism.’’
The commission, which began its investigations in March
1884, was composed as follows William Pepper, Joseph Leidy,
George A. Koenig, Robert Ellis Thompson, George S. Fullerton,
and Horace Howard Furness; added afterward were Coleman
Sellers, James W. White, Calvin B. Knerr, and S. Weir
Mitchell. Pepper, as provost of the university, was ex-officio
chairman. Furness acted as chairman and Fullerton was secretary
to the committee.
Seybert was represented in the committee by Thomas R.
Hazard, a personal friend. Hazard was charged by Seybert to
prescribe the methods to be used in the investigation, designate
the mediums to be consulted, and reject the attendance of
those whose presence might be in conflict with the harmony or
good order of the spirit circles. In May 1887, the committee
published a preliminary report with negative conclusions in the
whole field of Spiritualist phenomena. No final report was ever
published, nor was the investigation continued.
The committee first turned its attention to slate-writing.
Two séances with Mrs. S. E. Patterson led to no result. The
committee then sent to New York for Henry Slade and
promptly caught him in fraud. As no other slate-writing medium
was available for testing, a mock séance was arranged for
the committee by Harry Kellar, one of the more capable magicians
of the day, and he proceeded to deliver messages in
French, Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Gujerati, and German,
without the committee being able to discover the trick.
The committee then turned to the issue of spirit rappings.
Margaret Kane-Fox (of the Fox Sisters), the medium of these
experiments, stood on four glass tumblers, the heels of her
shoes resting upon the rear tumblers and the soles upon the
first tumblers. After many attempts, raps were heard and Furness
remarked to the medium, ‘‘This is the most wonderful
thing of all, Mrs. Kane, I distinctly feel them in your feet. There
is not a particle of motion in your foot, but there is an unusual
pulsation.’’ After two séances the experiments were abandoned
as the medium expressed doubt that in her state of health a
third meeting would bring more striking results. According to
the committee, this investigation was not sufficiently extensive
to warrant any positive conclusions. The report, however,
points out that ‘‘sounds of varying intensity may be produced
in almost any portion of the human body by voluntary muscular
action. To determine the exact location of this muscular activity
is at times a matter of delicacy.’’
An attempt was made to study spirit photography. This was
frustrated as the committee felt disinclined to accept the high
fees of William M. Keeler. He asked three hundred dollars for
three séances and the right to demand, if conditions made it
necessary, the exclusive use of the dark room and his own instruments.
The committee refused and concluded ‘‘that in
these days of composite photography it is worse than childish
to claim a spiritual source for results which can be obtained at
any time by any tyro in the art.’’
The investigations into materialization with Pierre L. O. A.
Keeler, into telekinesis phenomena with Dr. Rothermel, and
into direct voice with Maud E. Lord were declared to have
been negative.
In 1886 Fullerton visited to Germany to reexamine psychic
researcher Johann C. F. Zöllner’s experiments with Henry
Slade. He interviewed William Wundt, philosopher of the University
of Leipzig; Gustave Theodore Fechner, emeritus physicist
at the University of Leipzig; W. Schneibner, mathematician
of the University of Leipzig; and Wilhelm Weber, emeritus
physicist at the University of Göttingen. With the exception of
Weber, the learned professors declared that Zöllner’s mental
condition was not normal. The results of Fullerton’s investigation
in Europe appeared as an appendix to the Seybert Report.
The report of the Seybert Commission was received with indignation
by Spiritualists. Thomas R. Hazard, the only Spiritualist
on the committee, declared that he repeatedly protested
against the committee’s methods, but his protests were disregarded.
In the Philadelphia North American, Hazard publicly argued
for the removal of Fullerton, Thompson, and Koenig as
prejudiced researchers. For, he continued, ‘‘. . . had the object
in view been to belittle and bring into discredit, hatred and
general contempt the cause . . . the Trustees could scarcely have
selected more suitable instruments for the object intended
from all the denizens of Philadelphia than are the gentlemen
who constitute a majority of the Seybert Commission.’’
This protest was considered and rejected. The report subsequently
appeared, and A. B. Richmond, a Philadelphia lawyer,
replied in two books. Frank Podemore observed, ‘‘Spiritualists
contend, and not apparently without justification, that the inEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Seybert Commission
1393
tentions of Mr. Seybert were never fairly carried out, and that
the prepossessions of the committee against the subject under
investigation are demonstrated by their willingness to leave the
inquiry unfinished and to divert the funds entrusted to them
to an object which was regarded by the testator as at most of secondary
importance.’’
The negative results attained by the Seybert Commission,
and its implicit condemnation of the movement for harboring
fraudulent mediums, which has been substantiated by later research,
did much to set the intellectual community in the United
States against Spiritualism and marginalize it in the religious
community.
Sources
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. London Methuen,
1902. Reprinted as Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. New Hyde
Park, N.Y. University Books, 1963.
Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University
of Pennsylvania to Investigate Modern Spiritualism. Philadelphia
J. B. Lippincott, 1887.
Richmond, A. B. What I Saw at Cassadaga Lake; A Review of
the Seybert Commissioners’ Report. N.p., 1888.