In a chapter in his 1877 book, Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism titled “Delusions,” Daniel Dunglas Home, whom some believed to be the greatest physical medium of all time, wrote of several sad interviews with some “Genevan enthusiasts,” who had been swept into a table-tipping cult to their destruction.
Here Home tells the story:
“They consecrated their table, and proclaimed that it was tipped by the Messiah himself. They set a chair apart at their meetings, which chair was supposed to be invisibly filled by Christ. Nay, they ventured even farther than this. On one occasion God the Father was introduced as communicating a miserable species of homily, pilfered from various portions of Scripture. The messages, whether pronounced to emanate from Raphael, from Gabriel, or from the persons of the Trinity, were received with credulous ecstasy, preserved, arranged, and published in volume shape. I have copies of two of these precious productions. One bears the following title-page:
“POST TENEBRAS LUX.
L’EGLISE DE CHRIST.
Dicte Au Moyen D’une Table Par Le Fils De Dieu,
Le Sauveur Du Monde,
Seul Mediateur Entre Dieu Et Les Hommes. 1856.”
I do not print the names of the persons concerned in this movement, but they are at the service of any desirous of privately investigating the case. These unfortunates have abandoned their delusion. They are reduced from positions of comfort and even of wealth to a condition bordering in instances on absolute want. To-day, October 5th, 1876, I had an interview with the deepest sufferer of them all. At the age of seventy-two she is still young in patience and hope. As she narrated to me her losses and trials the peaceful smile that lit her face was the very gleam one might suppose to irradiate the countenance of some martyr, while, with his last accents, he breathed forgiveness to his enemies. From the notes I took whilst listening to her, I, with the help of a retentive memory, proceed to lay bare this item of Genevese history in almost my informant’s own words.
“It is a sad story, sir. Perhaps it would be well to seek to forget it, but, as you truly say, it may serve to warn others. God grant that it should!
“I am unable to give you the exact date, but some time in 1858 a strange piece of news reached us. We heard that, at the house of a Mr. X , some little girls had become developed as writing mediums, and that Mr. X himself had great power over a table, through which messages were given. Ho was a teacher of music, and a good and truly pious man. (Oh! he was honest, as we all were.) Well, out of curiosity I went to see these things, and, finding that the seances began with prayer, and that all the messages given were pure and good, I came home, and asked my husband to investigate the matter. How many times since then has he said, ‘It was you who first led me into it.’ These words were not said complainingly, for what right have any of us to complain? We all thought we were doing God’s work, and even now, sir, I can only say that, if it were a delusion, I still believe God will pity us, for our object was to glorify Him.
“My husband was a man of great intelligence, and in proof of it I need only say that he had been Professor of Mathematics in the college here. At the time alluded to, however, he no longer taught. By a number of fortunate speculations he had acquired a large fortune, and we were living in ease and luxury. (I see you are looking round my poor little room, sir; but it must have been the will of God, and that consoles me.)
“Mr. X said his table was moved by our Saviour; but now, in looking back, I wonder how we could have been foolish enough to credit such a thing. We were told by ‘the table’” (the words she used were “the Saviour,”but this constant repetition of a holy name is so repulsive that, for the remainder of the narrative, I substitute “the table,”) “that we must take Mr. X , his father, mother, &c., to reside in our house, and share with them the fortune it had pleased God to give us.
“I said to my husband, ‘Let us give them a large sum of ready money instead, and ask them to live elsewhere; for their tastes are not mine, and I could not be happy with them.’
“My husband answered, ‘ The life of the One we worship was a life of self-abnegation, and we must in all things copy Him. Overcome at once these worldly prejudices, and your sacrifice will prove your willingness to obey the Master.’
“Of course I consented, and seven additions were made to our household. Then began a life of utter recklessness as regards money. ‘The table’ ordered us to purchase another carriage and four new horses. We had nine servants in the house. Not only that, but ‘the table’ ordered us to build a steamboat. Very expensive it was. Painters and decorators were set to work on the house in which we lived; and, however rich and beautiful our furniture might be, ‘the table’ made us replace it with newer and still more costly articles. (All this, sir, was to be done that our mansion might be worthy to receive the One whom we foolishly believed came to it.)
“We were told, too, by ‘the table’ that it was necessary everything should be made as ostentatious as possible to attract the notice of the outside world. We did as we were ordered. We kept open house. The results were what might have been expected. People came, and made a pretence of being convinced. Young men and women visited us, and ‘ the table’ ordered them to be married. When they consented, the necessary outfits were furnished at our expense. Not only that, sir, but as often as these couples had children, the children were sent to us to be brought up, and I well remember that at one time we had eleven infants in the house.
“Mr. X , too, married, and his family went on increasing itself. At last, no less than thirty of us regularly sat down at table together. This continued for three or four years, until one day we discovered that our means were nearly all gone. ‘The table’ told us to go to Paris, and ‘ He’ would provide for us there. We went, and my husband was bidden to speculate on the Bourse. He did so, and lost. Still we had faith. As there were now but few in the family, we contrived to live on, Heaven only knows how.
“I have been for days together without other food than a crust of dry bread and a glass of water. I must not forget to tell you, sir, that whilst in Geneva we had been bidden to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and that there were sometimes from three to four hundred communicants at table. A monk from Argovie, too, left the convent of which he was Superior, and renounced the Catholic religion to join us. You see, sir, we were not alone in our blindness.
“Even during our trials in Paris our faith held firm. My husband often said that ‘the table ‘ had sent us there, and that he would not return to Geneva without ‘his’ permission. At last we asked for that permission, and were told we might return. Ah! it was then that we fully realised our position. We were poor, and those who had profited by our fortune whilst it lasted were the first to turn their backs upon us. I do wrong, though, sir, to tell you this, for it betokens a restless and complaining spirit, and I have no right to murmur.
“I had almost forgotten to relate that, amongst other wild fancies, ‘the table’ bade us buy a manufactory in France. We did so, and the undertaking proved a total failure. The place was sold for ten thousand francs, not a tenth of what it had cost us.
“You are looking at that large engraving, and wonder, no doubt, how it comes to have a place in my humble room. Well, sir, during the height of our folly, Mr. X was inspired with artistic ideas, but, strange to say, could not give expression to them. A professional painter was engaged, therefore, and X described to him his visions. That large engraving is taken from the picture which represented X ‘s idea of the Crucifixion. It is at the moment when our Lord says, ‘I thirst.’ The original painting was sold at auction by our creditors, with our house, and whatever else remained to us.
“No, sir, we have never seen Mr.X from that day. He married my niece whilst we were all living together, and had four children by her. She was called by God, and X has married again, and, I hear, never alludes to the past. Yes, he has been in Geneva, but he did not come to see us. Why should he? he is poor like us. I will tell you one little thing which has happened within the past three or four months.” (The incident not being at all to the credit of X , I refrain from giving it. The character of the narrator is well displayed by the self-rebuking manner in which her narrative terminated.)
“Indeed I am wicked, sir, to have told you such a thing as this. God forgive me for I ought to have been silent about it. Please, please forget that I told it. I am a sinful old woman, and I bow my head in all humility to ask heaven’s pardon for speaking such harsh words. Even in his wanderings, my husband” (the unfortunate man is insane) “never makes allusion to the past. Oh! I am perfectly convinced, sir, that it was not our connection with this affair which deprived him of reason. He began to work with his head very young, and mathematics fatigue the brain so. It is very, very hard not to have him with me, but he is at times beyond my control. Still I wish I could be allowed to have him here, and care for him.
“It is a sad story, as you say, but we were all striving to obey the dictates of what we thought to be a high and holy power. I assure you some of the messages were very beautiful, quite superior to what Mr. X could have given. Well, the day of life will soon terminate for us, and then we shall read the riddle. Speaking of those messages, I fear, sir, that even when we believed ourselves most humble, there was a strong tinge of vanity in our thoughts, for we all, of course, believed ourselves the chosen of the Lord. I remember that often, on seeing a funeral move past me, with its gloomy hearse and trappings of sorrow, I have said to myself exultingly, ‘Ah! how happy it is that we shall have no such ordeal to endure ;’ for ‘the table’ had told us that, as the chosen of the Lord, we should none of us see death, but be translated bodily to ‘his’ Father’s home. Remember, sir, that neither Mr. X nor any others of those concerned made, or sought to make, money out of the affair. We were all of us honest in our convictions. We bear our crosses cheerfully, therefore I cannot but think that, although we may have erred, the Lord will repay us, since we erred out of love for Him.”
I left that little room with a heavy heart. What an incomprehensible thing is human nature! A man seats himself before a table a foot or so in diameter, and tips out blasphemies to the laborious calling of the alphabet. This, only this, is sufficient to cast people, pious, intelligent, honest, of high social position and large fortunes, into a delirious ecstasy of credulity, from which they awake only to utter ruin! Nay, they hardly awake from it even then. We see them in the above narrative still hoping against hope that their faith may have had some foundation tending to warrant it; still blind to the character of the man through whom they have been despoiled of their all. That man seems to me one of the strange beings, half fanatic, half impostor, who abound in all ages of the world, and who, whilst deluding others, fall more and more into the habit of deluding themselves, till they may end by becoming fanatics more fervent than those who originally were their dupes. Certainly there was nothing in the proceedings of this person to warrant our supposing him possessed of much intelligence, or any capacity for weaving deeply meditated schemes. His blasphemies were of the rankest kind and his mode of operations was baldly simple.
I have just obtained some further light as to the origin of the “messages.” A hard-shell Calvinist, pastor of a Genevan church, was amongst the deluded worshippers of the little table. With this old man (he is now eighty-four) I, very recently, had an interview.
“You are most welcome,” said he, “to any information I [can give; but I have little to tell. I took the matter up because the messages given were in perfect accord with Scripture; and I at last dropped it, because some ideas were communicated which did not harmonize with the Bible and my belief. I gained nothing by it. On the contrary, I had, at the outset of my connection with the affair, a good income, and I returned to Geneva from that Paris journey with only two hundred francs in the world. I certainly consider that the matter, and the peculiarly Biblical formation of the messages, were superior to what Mr. X could have given. The communications more resembled my ideas than his. My hands were usually on the table too. Do I not now think it blasphemy? Certainly not. Why should not such things be? The Bible has bidden us expect a second coming of Christ. He came to a manger before; why not to a table now? It was all very strange; and it is nonsense to talk about the messages proceeding from the mind of some one present. Why, there was not even a medium there! I am not a medium. Mr. X is not a medium. No! he had not an excitable nature.”
The memory of the old gentleman must have played him false. I have questioned persons who knew X from childhood, and their testimony is uniformly the same. “A most impulsive nature, with very kind instincts, but self-deluded. He brought his friends to ruin, and himself shared their fate. His vanity was flattered, and would brook no demur. He, or his table, invariably became angry when any one rejected or desired to calmly investigate his monstrous pretensions.”
The preface to the volume of “messages” confirms strongly the truth of the above description. It is supposed to be dictated by the angel Gabriel, and contains the following :—” And whosoever laughs in his heart ” (at the contents of the book) “is a blasphemer, and must not remain with us.”
In the volume itself Christ is introduced as uttering the following threats :—” Look at my cross; but let him who mocks it take care of himself. We are not on Calvary here You would like to see miracles! Miracles were only done, and will only be done, for believers. When I was on earth men asked me to do miracles, and I replied, ‘Generation of vipers, begone to your father, and he will make miracles for you. He is waiting for you in the everlasting flames which consume him and his angels.’ Sinner, I did not come here to-night to ask your belief in the phenomenon you have before your eyes.” (Wonderful phenomenon truly! A man, seated at a small table, with his hands placed upon it, tips it monotonously towards himself. A child ten months old might have done the same, and a theologically-inclined boy of ten years, who had mastered the Bible as interpreted by Calvin, could with ease have constructed the “messages”).
Is there not a certain analogy in the above to the dark seances and puppet-shows of the present day? The honest sceptic who wishes to investigate is deridingly informed: “You want to see miracles, do you? Miracles are done with us only for the true believers.” Had such a course been pursued at the outset of the movement, would spiritualism to-day have counted twenty adherents in any country of the old world or the new? But I must return to my old pastor.
“Mr. X.,” he informed me, “was a musician, and very enthusiastic. I do not term that excitable. I think we were all calm when we sat around the table. As I have said, the messages were, at first, holy, heavenly, and perfectly in accordance with my views of the Bible. What caused me to retire was that I found the table afterwards become rather uncertain on various points. To this day, however, I am convinced that those beautiful communications could not have proceeded from the mind of Mr. X. The affair remains a deep mystery to me.”
The chief mystery it presents is the blindness of the dupes concerned to the most palpable facts. The old pastor, Mr. B., was a thorough Biblical scholar of the school of Calvin. He made it his custom to open every seance with prayer. Besides this, he generally kept up a running fire of theology all through the proceedings. These scraps of Calvinism the “medium ” X had only to treasure up, and, reproducing them through the table, behold the messages! No wonder that those messages agreed so completely with the Scriptural views of the old pastor. No wonder he was flattered to find that heaven and he were so completely at one on the questions of election, predestination, and so forth. The whole thing is simply a reproduction of the case of Allan Kardec, with the exception that Kardec’s interpreters wrote down his ideas instead of spelling them out by means of a table. The delusion was honest, but, for all that, it must be pronounced a delusion. Be it remarked that in the Genevan episode not only was the personal vanity of all concerned flattered, but also their national pride, and their religious sympathies and antipathies. Geneva was to be the chosen city of the Lord, and Rome tottered on the verge of destruction. I find in the volume of which I have spoken messages describing the two as follows :—
“Rome. Behold the lamp of the demon!”
“Geneva. The Eternal hath chosen it, from whence to reveal Himself to the whole of mankind as a God, jealous and forgiving. God in his goodness lighted in Geneva a torch of Truth and Life. God gave Geneva as a retreat for the Bible. The Eternal required a new Bethlehem. He chose Geneva. And yet the new Bethlehem, though glorious, can only offer the Little Child a table for shelter. You laugh, reader. Yes, you are so highly placed that you can disdain Me. Is it not truly vulgar that the Son of God should speak through a simple table?”
Such is a fair sample of the incomparable homilies which were considered so far beyond the capacity of Mr. X .
This can never be termed spiritualism. Just as soon might the ravings of those lunatics who declare the moon to come down every night and whip them, be deemed doctrines inherent to our cause. As I study this incident of religious monomania, I discern more and more clearly that the only spirits concerned in this and kindred follies are the twin-demons of Vanity and Pride. It is so with Kardecian dreams and fallacies. The votaries of those doctrines are, almost without exception, to be found in the working and bourgeois classes. They console themselves for their humble position and contracted minds by the reflection that they have been before, and may be again, powerful potentates, or men of mark in the realms of action and thought.
Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism, Daniel Dunglas Home, London: Virtue & Co., 1877
Home was very severe upon those who deluded themselves with this table-tipping theology, which is rather rich coming from someone who was no mean table-tipper himself, claimed to levitate out windows and bid spirits play caged accordions. Still, if you discount the messenger, a sad and cautionary tale. At the end of the book Home writes of “brother spiritualists who can discern nobler things in spiritualism than dark séances, puppet-shows, and third-rate jugglery.” The book is also dedicated to his wife, Julie de Gloumeline for whom he converted to the Greek Orthodox faith. Home had “retired” from mediumship in 1871 due to his ill health. Was this denunciation of physical mediumship a kind of atonement for his participation in imposture? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of Home’s book, “He bitterly resented any form of deception, and carried this excellent trait rather too far by looking with eyes of suspicion upon all forms of manifestations which did not exactly correspond with his own. This opinion, expressed in an uncompromising manner in his last book, “Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism,” gave natural offence to other mediums who claimed to be as honest as himself. A wider acquaintance with phenomena would have made him more charitable.”
The same level of obsession, self-delusion and disillusion seen in Home’s table tipping narrators can be found in The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts [also known merely as Hungry Ghosts] by Joe Fisher. The Wikipedia article is a convenient summary, but you really have to read the book to get the full flavour of the longing for paranormal revelations to be true. Fisher committed suicide in 2001, beset by money woes and fearing he had angered the “ghosts” he had investigated. This obituary by the Anomalist, gives an appreciation of the man.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.