Wallace, Alfred Russel (1823–1913)
British naturalist, codiscoverer with Charles Darwin of the
principles of biological evolution. Wallace was a philosophical
skeptic, a materialist. His experience of Spiritualist phenomena
overcame his skepticism.
In the preface to his book On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism
(1874) Wallace writes
‘‘They compelled me to accept them, as facts, long before I
could accept the spiritual explanation of them there was at that
time ‘no place in my fabric of thought into which it could be fitted.’
(Argument of Dr. Carpenter). By slow degrees a place was
Wallace was led to believe 1) in the existence of numerous
preternatural intelligences of various grades and 2) that some
of these intelligences, although usually invisible and intangible
to us, can and do act on matter, and do influence our minds.
It was by the latter doctrine that he accounted for some of the
residual phenomena in his work Contributions to the Theory of
Natural Selection (1870).
Wallace was born on January 8, 1823, at Usk, Monmouthshire.
After leaving school he worked as a land surveyor and architect.
Around 1840 his interest in botany began and he started
a herbarium. In 1845, he was an English teacher at the
Collegiate School, Leicester, where he met H. W. Bates, who influenced
him to collect and study beetles.
In 1848, they commenced a joint naturalist expedition to
the River Amazon. On the return journey, most of Wallace’s
collection was destroyed in a fire on the ship, but his book A
Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro appeared in
1853. He next traveled in the Malay Archipelago, and his large
insect collections passed to Oxford University and the British
In February 1858, during a severe attack of fever, he was
thinking about Malthus’ Essay on Population when, to quote his
own words ‘‘There suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the
survival of the fittest.’’ He drafted a theory which he posted to
Charles Darwin a few days later. By coincidence, Wallace’s
paper was virtually an abstract of Darwin’s own theory, written
in 1842.
Wallace’s earliest experiences relating to Spiritualism dated
from 1844 when he was a schoolmaster in Leicester. Influenced
by a lecture given by Spencer Hall on mesmerism, he tried similar
experiments. Later, during twelve years of tropical wanderings
in which he was occupied in the study of natural history,
he heard occasionally of table-turning and spirit rapping. He
decided to investigate them on his return.
His first opportunity came on July 22, 1865, in the house of
a friend. After more than a dozen sittings he became satisfied
that ‘‘there is an unknown power developed from the bodies of
a number of persons placed in connection by sitting round a
table with all their hands on it.’’
The next stage of his inquiry began in September 1865 and
was devoted to the physical and mental phenomena of Mary
Marshall. In broad daylight, Wallace observed levitation,
movement of objects without contact (telekinesis), and the alteration
of weight. Although unknown to Marshall, the place
name ‘‘Para,’’ where Wallace’s brother died, his name and that
of the last friend who saw him were spelled out. Messages came
spelled backwards, through direct writing.
Impressed by these occurrences, Wallace investigated in his
own home with the help of a medium. Phenomena were obtained
and from November 1866 onward, Wallace had the opportunity
to watch mediumship of Agnes Guppy-Volckman
develop. A stout woman, she was lifted noiselessly on the top
of the table while sitting in her chair, with five or six persons
close around her. Musical sounds were heard without the presence
of instruments. A German guest, a stranger, sang several
songs and the strains of this music accompanied her throughout.
Guppy-Volckman supposedly had the ability to apport flowers
and fruit. In midwinter, after she sat for four hours in a
small, warm, gas-lighted room in the Wallace home, a quantity
of flowers appeared upon a bare table—anemones, tulips, chrysanthemums,
Chinese primroses, and several ferns. Wallace
stated ‘‘All were absolutely fresh as if just gathered from a conservatory.
They were covered with a fine cold dew. Not a petal
was crumpled or broken, not the most delicate point or pinnule
of the ferns was out of place.’’
Wallace stated that the phenomenon was repeated afterward
hundreds of times. The flowers sometimes arrived in
large quantities. They were often brought on request, fruits as
well as flowers. A friend of Wallace asked for a sunflower, and
one six feet high fell on the table, with a large mass of earth
about its roots.
The naturalist formed a committee of the London Dialectical
Society in 1869 and witnessed, under test conditions, a variety
of telekinetic phenomena. When the possibility of spirit
photography was for the first time demonstrated in England
in the studio of Frederick A. Hudson, Wallace was anxious to
test this new phenomenon. Sitting with Guppy-Volckman he
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Wallace, Alfred Russel
obtained a communication by raps that his mother would try
to appear on Hudson’s photographic plate.
He sat three times, choosing his own position, and found a
male figure with a short sword on the first photographic plate,
and a female figure on the two other plates. Reportedly, both
of the latter images resembled his mother, and the second plate
was unlike any known photograph previously taken of her.
Under a magnifying glass, supposedly this second picture disclosed
a special feature of his mother’s face.
In view of these experiences and the large amount of testimony
in the literature of Spiritualism to similar occurrences,
Wallace declared it was his opinion that the phenomena of
Spiritualism did not require further confirmation. ‘‘They are
proved, quite as well as any facts are proved in other sciences.’’
His later attitude was in accordance with this conviction. He
never missed an opportunity to test psychic phenomena. He
made several attempts to convince the pillars of scientific skepticism
and started by inviting W. B. Carpenter to attend some
sittings in his own home. Carpenter came one evening. Raps
were heard, and these were repeated, sounding, at request, in
any part of the table. Carpenter sat still and made no comment.
He never returned to Wallace’s home.
The same thing happened with his colleague John Tyndall,
another scientific skeptic. Wallace had sent Thomas Henry
Huxley his paper ‘‘The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural,’’
which was later included in On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism.
Huxley responded to Wallace, ‘‘I am neither shocked nor disposed
to issue a commission of lunacy against you. It may be
true, for anything that I know to the contrary, but really I cannot
get up interest in the subject.’’ G. H. Lewes accepted an invitation
to the Wallace home but never went.
Between 1870 and 1880, Wallace had many opportunities to
witness interesting phenomena in the houses of various friends.
Through a member of his own family, automatic writing was
received in his own home, purporting to come from his deceased
brother William and containing many predictions which
were later fulfilled.
In 1874, Wallace was asked by the Fortnightly Review to write
an article on Spiritualism. It appeared under the title ‘‘A Defence
of Modern Spiritualism’’ and also later in On Miracles and
Modern Spiritualism, first published in 1875. The volume also
included two new chapters on the nature and purport of apparitions.
Later editions would be enlarged with accounts of the
author’s further personal experiences in séances with Katie
Cook, W. Haxby, Francis Ward Monck, William Eglinton,
and others. During much of the rest of his life, Wallace found
himself defending mediums, who were increasingly seen as
frauds. His defense would lead to a lively discussion with Eleanor
Sidgwick in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
in 1888.
Wallace defended Henry Slade and gave evidence of the
genuineness of his phenomena at the trial in Bow Street Police
Court, London, in 1876. In the same year, by casting his vote
as president of the anthropological subcommittee of the British
Association for the Advancement of Science he made possible
the presentation of William F. Barrett’s paper on Spiritualism.
In the years 1886–87, during a lecture tour of America, Wallace
stayed for some time in three centers of Spiritualism—
Boston, Washington and San Francisco. He attended materialization
séances with a medium named Ross, and when it was rumored
that she was caught in fraud he testified on her behalf
in a letter to the Banner of Light.
In Washington, in the company of Elliot Coues, General
Lippitt and D. Lyman, Wallace had remarkable experiences
with the medium Pierre L. O. A. Keeler, and he sat in San
Francisco at an outstanding slate-writing séance with Fred P.
Evans in which writing was produced in five different colors
and, on his impromptu suggestion, six crayon drawings were
precipitated on six pieces of paper placed between a pair of
slates, some of the drawings having personal relevance.
In later years, Wallace did not encounter much Spiritualist
phenomena but he remained true to his convictions up to the
end of his busy life. In 1910, he received the Order of Merit for
his scientific researches, however, because of his advocacy of
Spiritualism, his scientific contributions were largely ignored
and have remained unheralded. He died at Broadstone, Dorset,
on November 7, 1913.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology.
New York Helix Press, 1964.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. ‘‘Correspondence.’’ Journal of the
Society for Psychical Research 16 (1898).
———. My Life An Autobiography. 2 vols. New York Harper
& Brothers, 1906.
———. On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism Three Essays.
London James Burns, 1975.