Theobald, Morell (1828–1908)
British Spiritualist and author of Spiritualism at Home (1884)
and Spirit Workers in the Home Circle (1887), the latter describing
a series of curious psychic manifestations in his home that lasted
for many years.
Some of Theobald’s family members reportedly possessed
psychic gifts—his grandfather and father saw spirits. His own
friendship with the author William Howitt and family initiated
him into writing and mediumship in 1855. The psychic ties
were further strengthened by intimacy with Mr. and Mrs.
Thomas Everitt, and the two families held séances together for
many years. Not surprisingly, the loss of three children increased
the receptivity of the Theobald family. A sitting following
their death led to rapping phenomena, which, in the presence
of three living children, developed into movements of a
heavy dining table and, eventually, intelligent communications.
The book by Theobald’s sister titled Heaven Opened; or, Messages
for the Bereaved from Their Little Ones in Glory (1870) contains
records of these experiences. The contact with the beyond
was, at this period, threefold—the elder boy fell into trance and
was controlled by the deceased children and others; Theobald
and his wife wrote automatically; and Mrs. Everitt produced direct
voice manifestations for the family.
The strange phenomena of later years were first heralded
during a joint excursion with the Everitt family to Cornwall in
1871. To quote from Spirit Workers in the Home Circle
‘‘As we sat on woodland slopes we had the curious sensations
of rapping beneath the solid earth on which we sat. If we took
a basket of sandwiches, that was moved about by our sportive
invisible friends. At an inn where we stayed with our hamper
of provisions we expected the waiter would be scared, for raps
resounded on the window, walls and wainscoted panelling,
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Theobald, Morell
1555
while our hamper was bodily taken off by invisible hands into
one corner of the room and there opened and partly unpacked
for us.’’
In 1882 Mary, a new cook, was discovered to have clairvoyant
powers. When Tom, the youngest son, complained that his
hair was being pulled by invisible beings, Mary saw and described
the phantom visitors. Because of her gifts Mary was
soon advanced to the standing of a trusted friend of the family.
After the maid left, Nellie Theobald and Mary occupied the
same bedroom and looked jointly after the household duties.
Morell Theobald employed many tests to verify strange occurrences
in the house; he often got up in the middle of the
night in an attempt to catch the perpetrators in the act, but he
was unsuccessful.
For some time, Theobald resisted every request of competent
psychic investigators to take Mary to their own rooms for
investigation. In this resolve he was strangely strengthened by
spirit advice in direct writing. The limited investigation of
Frank Podmore and Frank S. Hughes of the Society for Psychical
Research (SPR) was finally allowed to continue in the
Theobald home in 1884, and cast considerable doubt on many
of the marvelous occurrences, especially on the spirit writings,
which appeared in every conceivable place—on the ceiling, on
the walls, on locked drawers and receptacles, on marked papers,
and came in many languages old French, Latin, Hebrew,
Greek, and Raratongan, among others.
The SPR investigators were never able to witness the actual
performance of the various phenomena and found many circumstances
that suggested human origin in the spirit writings.
The letters were regularly formed and of normal size when they
appeared in places accessible to persons of ordinary stature but
became straggling and irregular on higher places as if they had
been written with a broomstick with a pencil attached. The
locked secretaire in which writing was produced was not fraudproof.
A piece of paper could easily be slipped in through a
crack.
The investigators also contended that the small characters
in certain pieces of spirit writing could have been written by
anybody with a sharp pencil and patient practice. They found
many crude mistakes in the Latin and Greek scripts and discovered
finally the facts contained in the communications coming
from ‘‘Saadi’’ had been published in an article, ‘‘Persian Poetry
in the Past’’ in Part 6 of Chamber’s Repository of Instructive and
Amusing Tracts. It also appeared that ‘‘Wamik,’’ who claimed to
have been ‘‘Saadi’s’’ friend and contemporary poet, was a fictitious
entity, the imaginary hero of the poem to which he subscribed
his name. In the end it appeared that Mary was the
mundane source of much if not all of the phenomena.
The findings of the two investigators were strongly criticized
in Light (January, February, and March 1885). The editor concluded
that the investigation was incomplete and hasty and that
fraud could not explain the extraordinarily varied phenomena
of the Theobald house.
Morell Theobald admitted that ‘‘many of the writings . . . are
comparatively feeble compositions’’ and that he had found the
source of the most puzzling pieces of direct writing (i.e., the
Lord’s Prayer as used in the twelfth century and the Rarantongan
Script) in a volume he had given Mary as a Christmas present.
He refused to seek a normal explanation to the diversified
styles of handwriting, even when the scripts were handed out
by Mary herself from the cabinet in which she sat to develop
materializations.
There was no better evidence for deep-rooted unshakable
faith than Theobald’s account of the test undertaken on behalf
of the SPR in 1886. He was handed two sealed envelopes by E.
T. Bennett, assistant secretary of the SPR, in order to have the
hidden contents deciphered by spirit agency. After some weeks,
writing was obtained on the outside of the envelopes that
proved to be a fairly good counterpart of the inside. Theobald
was then handed a third envelope, which was in his careful
keeping for some months, according to him ‘‘no one in the
house besides myself and my wife knowing of its existence.’’
Again the contents were revealed, but instead of triumph, a
very painful accusation was made against the Theobald family
the SPR claimed that all the envelopes had been opened and
gummed up again. To make matters worse, the handwriting on
all three was identical in character with the well-known scripts.
Theobald believed mischievous and fraudulent spirits had
spoiled the tests. He said that the family had broken the essential
condition of trust and thereby had opened the door to such
evil influences. This conviction of Theobald’s was apparently
borne out by psychometric readings of the envelopes through
a clairvoyant and by many mediumistic communications. One
of the readings was obtained through the mediumship of William
Eglinton, who was on more than one occasion caught in
mediumistic fraud. It is a very legitimate inference that the atmosphere
of blind faith that pervaded the Theobald family had
allowed serious deception.
Sources
‘‘Alleged ‘Physical Phenomena’ in the Family of Morell
Theobald.’’ Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 2
(1886).
Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. London Methuen,
1902. Reprinted as Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. New Hyde
Park, N.Y. University Books, 1963.