Thackeray, William Makepeace (1811–1863)
This noted novelist was introduced to the phenomena of
Spiritualism during a lecture tour in the United States, when
he attended a séance with the famous medium D. D. Home. He
also observed the rapping phenomena of Ann (Leah) Underhill,
one of the Fox sisters. His sympathetic reaction was described
in Underhill’s book The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism
(1885). This experience and subsequent observations with
Home led Thackeray to endorse the sincerity of the anonymous
account (written by Robert Bell) ‘‘Stranger Than Fiction.’’ It
was published in the Cornhill Magazine and edited by Thackeray.
He was severely criticized for this apparent endorsement of
Spiritualism.
However, it seems that, in fact, his attitude was somewhat
ambiguous. In a letter to his friends Mrs. Thomas F. Elliot and
Kate Perry, he states
‘‘Yes I have seen the Rappers, and the table moving, and
heard the Spirits. The moving of tables is undoubted, the
noises and knocks (continual raps following the person who has
the gift of eliciting them) some natural unexplained phenomenon
but the Spirits is of course dire humbug and imposture.
They try to guess at something and hit or miss as may be. 1000
misses for one hit—It is a most dreary and foolish
superstition. . . . But the physical manifestations are undoubted—Tables
moving lifted up and men even lifted off the
ground to the ceiling so some are ready to swear—but though
I do not believe in this until I see it; I wouldn’t have believed
in a table turning 3 weeks ago—and that I have seen and swear
to. . . .’’
Both Thackeray and his friend Charles Dickens had the
highest regard for John Elliotson, a pioneer of mesmerism
who was later converted to Spiritualism after initial skepticism.
Thackeray based his character ‘‘Dr. Goodenough’’ in Pendennis
and The Newcomes on Elliotson, and dedicated the former novel
to him.
Sources
Goldfarb, Russell M., and Clare R. Goldfarb. Spiritualism and
Nineteenth-Century Letters. New Brunswick, N.J. Associated University
Presses, 1978.
Underhill, A. Leah. The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism.
New York Thomas R. Knox, 1885. Reprint, New York Arno
Press, 1976.