Table-turning (or Table-tipping)
A form of psychic phenomena in which a table rotates, tilts,
or rises completely off the ground by the mere contact of the
fingertips of an individual or group of individuals. In exceptional
cases tables have been known to move or even levitate
without direct contact. The familiar form of séance in tableturning
is that in which the sitters place their fingertips on the
table; then the table moves without conscious exercise of muscular
force. By relating the raps or tilts of the table to the alphabet
it becomes possible to receive intelligent messages. (See
Historical Background
Table-turning is the simplest and oldest form of communication
with extraneous intelligences or the subconscious self. In
ancient times tables were used for purposes of divination as
‘‘mensa divinatoriae.’’ In fourth-century Rome, Ammianus
Marcellinus described a table with a slab, engraved with the letters
of the alphabet, above which a ring was held, suspended
by a thread; by swinging to certain letters, messages were
spelled out. Tertullian (ca. 155–ca. 222) appears to have been
one of the first who knew of table communications with the unseen
Table-turning in modern Spiritualism dates from the midnineteenth
century and seems to have originated in America
soon after the Rochester rappings of 1848. At that time, there
was considerable interest in animal magnetism or ‘‘electrobiology,’’
stemming from the mesmerism of Europe.
Mesmerism established the convention of groups of individuals
arranged in a circle with a variously named magnetic fluid
linking them. After the phenomena of rappings in the presence
of the Fox sisters became widely known, groups gathered
around other individuals who possessed the same ability to
generate raps.
Table-turning and rapping spread like an epidemic
throughout America and was brought to England by such professional
mediums as Maria B. Hayden, who came to London
with a lecturer on electro-biology in 1852. An advantage of
table-turning was that it did not require a paid professional medium.
Amateur groups could sit round a table and obtain the
intelligent rappings which had first been manifest only to specially
talented individuals, i.e., mediums.
In 1852 afternoon social invitations to tea and table-turning
were common. Table-turning was even more successful in
France, with its tradition of mesmerism and animal magnetism.
One widespread jest was that people no longer asked after each
other’s health, but asked instead how the table was. ‘‘Thank
you, mine turns beautifully, and how goes yours’’
Mesmerists welcomed table-turning as a demonstration of
animal magnetism or odic force, while Fundamentalist ecclesiastics
denounced it as due to Satanic agency. Scientists and doctors
thought that the new craze would be a danger to mental
health and a committee was formed to find a non-Spiritualist
explanation for the phenomenon. They reported in the Medical
Times and Gazette on June 11, 1853, that the motion of the table
was due to unconscious muscular action.
A few weeks later the great chemist and physicist Michael
Faraday reported experiments with a simple apparatus to
demonstrate that the movements of the table were due to unconscious
muscular action of the part of the sitters, who were
by implication the automatic authors of the messages claiming
to come from the spirit world. Faraday’s apparatus consisted of
two thin wooden boards with little glass rollers between them.
The contraption was whole bound together with rubber bands
and so contrived that the slightest lateral pressure on the upper
board would cause it to slip a little way over the other. A haystalk
or a scrap of paper served to indicate any motion of the
upper board over the lower.
The conclusion drawn from these experiments was that
when the sitters believed themselves to be pressing downward,
they were really pressing obliquely in the direction they expected
the table to rotate. Other investigators also held the expectation
that the operators had much to do with the motions of the
table. James Braid pointed out in the appendix to his book
Hypnotic Therapeutics (1853) that someone generally announced
beforehand the direction they expected the table to rotate.
Among the earliest investigators of the phenomenon of
table-turning were Count Agenor De Gasparin and Prof. Marc
Thury of Geneva, who held séances and were satisfied that the
movements resulted from a force radiating from the operators,
to which they gave the name of ectenic force.
The public, on the whole, ignored the conclusions of Faraday
and others, preferring the more popular Spiritualist explanation
or the pseudo-scientific theories of ‘‘electro-biology.’’
Other explanations offered included od or odic force, galvanism,
animal magnetism, and the rotation of the Earth. Revs.
G. Sandby and C. H. Townshend claimed to have experienced
a feeling of fatigue after a table-turning séance as though they
had been hypnotizing someone. They reported a tingling sensation
in their fingertips, while Townshend claimed somewhat
vaguely that spirit rappings might be caused by a ‘‘disengagement
of Zoogen (an unidentified force in nature) from the System.’’
Meanwhile various Evangelical clergymen insisted that
table-turning was Satanic. Revs. N. S. Godfrey, E. Gillson, and
others held séances in which the ‘‘spirit’’ confessed themselves
to be either spirits of worthless persons of evil inclination or
devils. Both of the ‘‘spirits’ ’’ confessions caused the reverent
gentlemen to denounce the whole practice of table-turning.
One of them purposely mentioned the Faraday experiments,
stating that the phenomena ‘‘appear to be whatever the investigator
supposes them to be’’—a saying which aptly characterized
his own attitude.
The psychical researcher Camille Flammarion, whose exhaustive
experiments and scientific attainments gave considerable
weight to his opinion, offered an explanation of the various
phases of table-turning phenomena. Simple rotation of the
table he ascribed to an unconscious impulse given by the operators;
other movements of the table while the fingers of the sitters
rested upon it were ascribed to similar causes. The tilting
of the table on the side furthest away from the operator was explained
by muscular action. The vibrations in the wood of the
table, its levitation under the fingers, or extent, its rotation
without contact of the operator’s hands, he attributed to a force
emanating from the body. In the latter case, the operator was
capable of acting at a distance by means of ether-waves. This
force, the result of a cerebral disturbance, was greater than that
of the muscles, as is seen by the levitation of tables so weighty
that the combined muscular strength of the operators would
not suffice to lift them.
To the dictating of messages and other intelligent manifestations
he gave an origin in this psychic force, which is perhaps
identical with Thury’s ‘‘ectenic force,’’ or ‘‘psychode,’’ and
which is obedient to the will and desires, or even, in some cases,
the subconscious will of the operator. Flammarion did not consider
the spirit hypothesis necessary.
It is possible that some fraud may have crept into the séances
investigated by Flammarion, as it has done in so many
other cases. There are, of course, those among the most qualified
of psychical researcher, who find the hypothesis of unconscious
muscular action or deliberate fraud a satisfactory explanation
of the phenomena.
The Mechanics of Table-Turning
One common procedure followed by those engaged in table
tipping began with those in attendance forming a circle around
the table. They placed hands lightly, with fingertips touching,
on the leaf, and with lowered lights or in complete darkness,
waited for the manifestations. According to reports, if someone
with psychic powers was present the table might show signs of
animation. The first such sign was often a quivering motion
under the sitters’ hands; it increased until the table pulsated
with a mysterious energy. The wooden surface appeared to
some to act as a reservoir of externalized nervous force.
The psychical researcher Hereward Carrington said that in
his séances with Eusapia Palladino the table appeared to be
somehow alive like the back of a dog. In one of his stories a similar
phenomenon that occurred during the mediumship of medium
D. D. Home induced Alexander Dumas to fantasize the
table as an intelligence itself. The conception of a spirit entering
furniture became a favorite idea with French authors afterward.
After the vibratory stage the table might jerk, tilt, stumble
about, and eventually become entirely levitated. Apparently,
there was believed to be an intelligence behind these movements.
If the letters of the alphabet were called over in the
dark, the table, by tilting, knocking on the floor, or tapping, indicated
certain letters that connectedly spelled out a message,
often claiming to come from someone deceased. The intelligence
that manifested had personal characteristics. In repeated
sittings it was soon noticed by observers that the skill with which
the table was manipulated or the eccentricities of its behavior
were indications of the presence of the same entity. The
strange, stolid, or clumsy behavior of the table immediately denoted
that a new visitant was tampering with the contact.
But the table might disclose much more than that. Its motions
could express humor, emotion, and personality. It might
climb up into the sitter’s lap as a mark of affection; it might
chase others all over the room in a hostile manner. As an additional
means of expression, the table could convey queer impressions
by creaking. P. P. Alexander noted in his book Spiritualism
A Narrative with a Discussion (1871)
‘‘At a particular stage of the proceedings the table began to
make strange undulatory movements, and gave out, as these
proceeded, a curious accompaniment of creaking sounds. Mr.
Home seemed surprised. ‘This is very curious,’ he said, ‘it is a
phenomenon of which I have no experience hitherto.’ Presently
my friend remarked that movement and sound together—it
reminded him of nothing he could think of except a ship in distress,
with its timbers straining in a heavy sea. . . . This conclusion
being come to . . . the table proceeded to rap out ‘It is
David.’ Instantly a lady burst into tears, and cried wildly ‘Oh,
that must be my poor, dear brother, David, who was lost at sea
some time since.’ ’’
When the table moves under contact there is an obvious possibility
for the subconscious mind or a secondary personality
to convey ideas by unconscious muscular pressure of either a
medium or the sitters. According to F. W. H. Myers,
‘‘The subliminal self, like the telegraphist begins its effort
with full knowledge of the alphabet, but with only weak and
rude command over our muscular adjustments. It is therefore
a priori likely that its easiest mode of communication will be
through a repetition of simple movements, so arranged as to
correspond to letters of the alphabet.’’
But Myers was inclined to attribute to the subconscious
mind the movement of the table without contact as well. ‘‘If a
table moves when no one is touching it, this is not obviously
more likely to have been effected by my deceased grandfather
than by myself. We cannot tell how I could move it; but then
we cannot tell how he could move it either.’’
Certainly, there are experiences which bear out this possibility
and show how singularly deceptive the interpretation of
phenomena may be. George S. Long, an acquaintance of Richard
Hodgson, narrated in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical
Research (vol. 9, p. 65) a strange experience with a chair.
Through a young lady he received what was said to be the most
convincing test of spirit return
‘‘First the chair spelt out my name and showed a disposition
to get into my lap; then it spelt out ‘George, you ought to know
me as I am Jim.’ But I didn’t, and said so. Then without my
looking at the board, it spelt out ‘Long Island, Jim Rowe’ and
‘Don’t you remember I used to cary you when you were a little
fellow,’ or words to that effect. I had to acknowledge the truth
of it and also to say that as he was an ignorant man he possibly
intended ‘Cary’ for carry. I must own I was puzzled for the moment.
To make sure of his power I asked that he count the pickets
in the fence. Somehow he could not agree to this, and even
the medium objected. As a last resort I asked how long he had
been in the spirit land and the answer came, between thirteen
and fourteen years. Now to the sequel. First it occurred to me
a day or two later, that while all the incidents given were correct
the name should have been given as Roe instead of Rowe. Second
I was upon Long Island this summer, and the matter coming
to my mind I inquired how long Jim Roe had been dead,
and was informed he died last Winter; so when I received this
test so convincing to the believers the man was not dead.’’
The material from which the chair or table was made
seemed to make no difference once the available power was sufficient
to manifest. The reason why a table was used for spirit
communication was primarily convenience; it was piece of generally
available furniture which allowed contact around it for a
large number of people. Some Spiritualists also thought its surface
acted as a receptacle for the generated force and compared
the space underneath the table to a medium’s cabinet,
especially if it was surrounded by a deep hanging table cloth.
In the early days of Spiritualism, they often used a table with
a hole in the middle through which ‘‘materialized hands’’ could
be thrust.
Eusapia Palladino insisted on a séance table built entirely of
wood. She considered soft pinewood the best to absorb vital
magnetism. She allowed no metal in the construction of the
The color of the table made no difference. Joseph Maxwell
found an advantage in covering it with some white material of
light texture. He also insisted that the table should, if possible,
be fastened with wooden pegs instead of nails since mediums,
supposedly, are sometimes extremely sensitive to metals.
It was reported that with a powerful medium the movement
of the table could occur at any time and disclose a tremendous
force in operation. Thus Gambier Bolton, writing in Psychic
Force (1904) observed,
Table-turning Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
‘‘During any meal with Mrs. Elgie Corner [i.e., Florence
Cook] in one’s own house, and whilst she herself is engaged in
eating and drinking—both of her hands being visible all the
time—the heavy dining table will commence first to quiver, setting
all the glasses shaking, and plates, knives, forks and spoons
in motion, and then to rock and sway from side to side, occasionally
going so far as to tilt up at one end or at one side; and
all the time raps and tappings will be heard in the table and in
many different parts of the room. Taking a meal with her in a
public restaurant is a somewhat serious matter.’’
In experiments conducted by psychical researcher Harry
Price with the psychic Stella C. in 1923, powerful and rhythmical
vibrations of tables were obtained, and on one occasion,
after violent movements of a table, it suddenly snapped, the top
breaking into two pieces, and the legs breaking off.
Table-Turning and Dowsing
The various theories about the rationale of table-turning
parallel those advanced for the phenomena of dowsing and radiesthesia,
where there is meaningful movement of a waterwitching
rod or a pendulum or similar indicator. The actual
force moving the indicator is still a matter of controversy.
It is generally assumed that unconscious muscular action or
nervous energy plays a significant part, but it is still far from
clear how information on underground water, minerals, or buried
objects is conveyed to the mind, or from the mind to the
One of the earliest investigators to link the action of tableturning
with divining rods or pendulums was the French
chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, in his book De la baguette
divinatoire, du pendule dit ex plorateur et des tables tournantes, au
point de vue de l’histoire, de la critique et de la méthode expérimentale
In modern times, table-turning is a laborious method of establishing
contact with unseen intelligence. Planchette and
ouija board are more satisfactory and faster. Also, while a number
of prominent mediums such as Betty White began their career
with a ouija board, they quickly moved beyond. Messages
obtained by such methods are often misleading or false. Again,
the communications received at circles in general tend to reflect
the general interest level of the sitters.
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