Slate Writing
A form of direct writing, or ‘‘autography,’’ that has been
one of the popular phenomena of séances. The method is the
same in the majority of cases. The medium and the sitter take
their seats at opposite ends of a small table, each grasping a
corner of an ordinary school slate that they thus hold firmly
pressed against the underside of the table. A small fragment of
slate-pencil is first enclosed between slate and table, for the use
of the spirit-writer. Should the séance be successful, a scratching
sound, as of someone writing on a slate, is heard at the end
of a few moments; three loud raps indicate the conclusion of
the message; and on the withdrawal of the slate, it is found to
be partly covered with writing—either a general message from
the spirit world, or an answer to some question previously written
down by the sitter.
Among the mediums who were most successful in obtaining
spirit writing in this manner were Henry Slade and William
Eglinton. The former, an American medium, came to England
in 1876 and succeeded in mystifying a number of people of education
and of scientific attainments. His critics attributed his
success, in part at least, to his frank and engaging manner.
Ray Lankester exposed his trickery, and Henry Slade was
prosecuted. Although sentenced to three months’ hard labor,
the omission of certain words in the accusation made the conviction
of no effect. But Slade found that England had become
too hot for him and speedily left.
Many of the accounts of his séances in different countries
are of interest, chiefly because of the discrepancy that exists between
the observations of credulous Spiritualists and those of
trained investigators. Richard Hodgson, however, has pointed
out that even in the latter class, instances of flawed observation
were the rule rather than the exception, particularly where
sleight of hand played a prominent part.
William Eglinton was a worthy successor to Slade as a medium
for slate-writing manifestations and attained extraordinary
popularity, with more than a hundred people testifying to his
mediumistic powers in the Spiritualist journal Light. Speaking
of Eglinton’s performances, C. C. Massey of the Psychological
Society said ‘‘Many, of whom I am one, are of the opinion that
the case for these phenomena generally, and for autography,
in particular, is already complete.’’
Eglinton’s manifestations were produced in full light, and
his séances were seldom without results, so it is hardly surprising
that many persons, ignorant of the lengths to which conjuring
can be carried and overconfident in their own ability to observe
correctly, should have seen in slate-writing a
phenomenon explicable only by a Spiritualist theory.
But there was definite proof of fraud in several cases. Muslin
and a false beard, part of the make-up of a ‘‘spirit,’’ had been
found in Eglinton’s portmanteau, and various persons declared
Slater, John Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1416
that they had seen his messages written on prepared slates previous
to séances.
Other well-known exponents of slate-writing were Fred P.
Evans and Laura A. Pruden.
Spiritualists themselves responded to exposures by asserting
that fraud might occasionally be practiced by genuine mediums,
owing to the uncertainty of the ‘‘power’’ and the constant
expectation of phenomena. Particularly was this so in the case
of professional mediums, who felt obliged to produce some results,
and who had to resort to trickery when other means failed
them.
S. J. Davey, an associate of the Society for Psychical Research,
London, having discovered the tricks of slate-writing,
practiced them himself and was accordingly claimed by certain
Spiritualists as a medium as well as a conjurer, notwithstanding
his protestations to the contrary! This was undoubtedly a powerful
argument against the good faith of slate-writing. If his sitters
could mistake these sleight-of-hand tricks (which Davey
practiced with the express purpose of discrediting professional
mediums) for genuine spirit manifestations, they might also be
misled by the legerdemain of Slade and Eglinton, and other
well-known mediums. It has been objected that even a skilled
conjurer such as Professor Hoffmann (Angelo J. Lewis) professed
himself mystified by slate-writing performances.
The methods adopted by Davey were of a simple nature, requiring
little or no apparatus. In the case of a long, general
message, he would prepare a slate beforehand and substitute
it for the test slate. A shorter message, or a reply to a question,
he would write on the reverse side of the slate, with a scrap of
pencil fastened in a thimble, and so withdraw the slate that the
side written on would be uppermost. There is reason to believe
that similar devices were used in other séances for their simplicity
and the absence of all apparatus rendered them particularly
difficult to detect. But where the sitters were more credulous,
intricate furniture and appliances were used and the most elaborate
preparations made for the séance.
Slate writing is now a largely discredited phenomenon because
it is open to conjuring fraud and it has never required
anything in the nature of the reverent atmosphere of a Spiritualist
séance. The businesslike way in which vague messages or
answers to questions are obtained does not suggest either spirit
agency or the operation of a paranormal faculty.
Sources
Abbott, David P. Behind the Scenes with the Mediums. Chicago
Open Court; London Kegan Paul, 1909.
———. The Revelations of a Spirit Medium. St. Paul Farrington,
1891. Rev. ed., edited by Harry Price and E. J. Dingwall.
London Kegan Paul, 1922.
Farmer, John S. ‘Twixt Two Worlds A Narrative of the Life and
Work of William Eglinton. London The Psychological Press,
1886.
Owen, J. J. Psychography Marvelous Manifestations of Psychic
Power Given Through the Mediumship of Fred P. Evans. San Francisco,
1893.

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