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Part 3 Roundtable on Ectoplasm and Materializations

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Roundtable on Ectoplasm and Materialization Continues (Part 3)

Posted on 21 December 2020, 10:51

A virtual roundtable involving four pioneers of psychical research on the subjects of ectoplasm and materialization began with my post of November 23, while Part 2 was posted on December 7.  This is the final part.  The roundtable members are Sir Williams Crookes, Professor Charles Richet, Dr. Gustave Geley, and Dr. Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, all identified in the first post. I am serving as moderator.

As stated in Part 1, the words here are those of the researchers, as extracted from their reports and books, except words in brackets, which are inferred to permit a meaningful flow and link. 

Moderator: I am pleased to announce that Dr. William J. Crawford is in town and will be joining us for this final session. I know that you are all familiar with his work, but for the benefit of the audience, I will note that Dr. Crawford has done extensive research with mediums. He was a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University of Belfast and the Municipal Technical Institute of Belfast.  Beginning in 1914, he had 87 sittings with the Goligher Circle over a period of some two-and-a-half years, resulting in four books – The Reality of Psychic Phenomena (1918), Hints and Observations on the Phenomena of Spiritualism (1918), Experiments in Psychical Science (1919), and The Psychic Structure of the Goligher Circle (1921)  (The other four welcomed Dr. Crawford)

I’d like to begin by asking Dr. Crawford to summarize his experiences with ectoplasm, although I realize he referred to it simply as plasma.  It is my understanding, Dr. Crawford, that you did not actually visualize the plasma or ectoplasm until the very end of your research.


Crawford:  “[My pleasure.] On one occasion, while the table was levitated I placed my hand under it near the top.  As in previous tests, I felt no sense of pressure whatever, but I did feel a clammy, cold, almost oily sensation – in fact, an indescribable sensation, as though the air there were mixed with particles of dead and disagreeable matter.  Perhaps the best word to describe the feeling is ‘reptilian.’ I have felt the same substance often – and I think it is substance – in the vicinity of the medium, but there it has appeared to me to be moving outwards from her.  Once felt, the experimenter always recognizes it again.  This was the only occasion on which I have felt it under the levitated table, though perhaps it is always there, but not usually in such intense form.  Its presence under the table and also in the vicinity of the medium shows that it has something to do with the levitation; and in short I think there can be little doubt that it is actual matter temporarily taken from the medium’s body and put back at the end of the séance, and that it is the basic principle underlying the transmission of psychic force.  The table soon dropped when I moved my hand to and fro in amongst this psychic stuff.”

Moderator: You wrote of observing all this under a red light. However, it is somewhat unclear as to what you actually witnessed.


Crawford: “The light is usually strong enough – after the eyes get accustomed to its red color – to see quite plainly all the sitters. It is a subdued kind of light, issuing from a large surface of ordinary gas flame.  The only difficulty in the visibility is where a table or other large body casts a shadow over a portion of the floor … The greatest trouble experienced by the experimenter in tracing the outlines of the psychic structures at the Goligher circle lies in the fact they are generally quite invisible under the ordinary conditions of the séance room. They are not always quite invisible, but usually so.”

Moderator: You mentioned not being able to take photographs until the final stages of your research.



Crawford: [“True.] Only within the last six months or so has it been found possible to photograph the stuff which issues from the medium’s body – I call it ‘plasma’ for want of a better word – and from which the psychic structures are built up that produce the phenomena of raps, levitations, touchings, etc. … The operators informed me by raps that success would finally come if I would be persistent enough. The chief difficulty seemed to be in preventing injury to the medium. The operators said it was necessary gradually to work her up to withstand the shock of the flashlight upon the plasma; nor is this much to be wondered at when it is considered the plasma is part of her body exteriorized in space.”

Moderator: Thank you, Dr. Crawford. I would like to devote the remainder of this last session to the concern as to what is behind all this strange activity. Sir William, since your research preceded that of the others here, I’d ask to begin with you.

Crookes: “Without wishing at present to speak positively on this point, I may say that whilst I have observed many circumstances which appear to show that the will and intelligence of the medium have much to do with the phenomena, I have observed some circumstances which seem conclusively to point to the agency of an outside intelligence, not belonging to any human being in the room.”

Richet: “[Let’s call it what it is.] We have come to the spiritist hypothesis. It is neither to be desired nor feared. When we devote ourselves to the high task of seeking truth, we ought not to be intimidated by the opinion of the crowd, nor allured by any obscure desire for personal immortality … The hypothesis is frank and clear. By conferring omniscience on spirits it explains most of the facts, but it involves so many improbabilities that, despite its seeming simplicity, I find myself unable to adopt it. Nevertheless I oppose it half-heartedly, for I am quite unable to bring forward any wholly satisfactory counter-theory.”

Schrenck-Notzing: “[I believe] that the spirit hypothesis not only fails to explain the slightest detail of these occurrences, but it impedes and hinders in every way serious scientific investigation … Nearly all the investigators who have lately studied the phenomena of physical mediumship – which, in view of the psychogenic character of the occurrences, must always retain some connection with psychical phenomena – incline towards a rejection of the spiritistic theory in favour of the psycho-dynamical conception and towards a purely observational attitude.”

Moderator: Dr. Geley, your thoughts or position?

Geley: “It should be beyond doubt that the Self both pre-exists, and that it survives the grouping which it directs during one’s earth life; that it more particularly survives its lower objectifaction during this life. This may at least be admitted, if not as a mathematical certainty, at least as a high probability. If so, the manifestation of a ‘discarnate spirit’ on the material plane by the aid of dynamic and organic elements borrowed from the medium then appears an undeniable possibility.”

Moderator:  Dr. Crawford, in your reports, you refer to “operators” on the other side communicating with you in carrying out your experiments.  Do you see these operators as spirits of the “dead” or some aspect of the subconscious?

Crawford: “[The subconscious] is the alternative I had in mind all through my investigations.  As months succeeded month, as each new phase of phenomena was presented, as each new experiment was done, I always said to myself, ‘Can this very determined work of seemingly intelligent beings be but a simulation after all?  Can it be all a fraud?  Is it possible that nature holds intelligences belonging to ourselves or otherwise, which could so persistently deceive?  Why should our subliminal consciousness (supposing we possess such a thing) carry out for us phenomenal demonstrations on the lines of reason and intelligence, requiring effort and system, for the object of deceiving us?’  No! It seems most unlikely and repellant to our sense of the fitness of things.  Nobody who has not delved deeply into psychic phenomena can have any conception of its tremendous variety and range.  It includes telekinetic phenomena, apports, materialization, the direct voice, clairvoyance, clairaudience, trance, etc., etc.  There are, in fact, dozens of phases of psychic action, all consistent in the inference to which they lead, namely, that man survives death, and inconsistent on any other hypothesis.”
Moderator: Some critics have a difficult time believing that spirits would be engaged in what seems to them as tomfoolery.  As I understand it from your reports, they are experimenting, just as you are? What do you say to this?

Crawford: “I admit that it is very difficult for the ordinary person to bring home to his consciousness the fact that these unseen beings can possibly be like himself in their make-up.  There is an ingrained feeling in humanity that the beings inhabiting the after-death world must be far removed from us in mental qualities and characteristics – we feel that they should a great advance in intellectual equipment over what they possessed here; that they should be, if not quite angels, at any rate not far removed from them.  Of course this instinctive feeling we all possess is due to centuries of religious instruction behind us; we feel that the next state must of necessity be either heaven or hell.  Hence it is rather a shock to us when we find the inhabitants of that other state not to be angels by any manner of means, not to exceed us appreciably in intelligence, but to be, in fact, only good-natured beings of much the same capacity as our familiar selves.”

Moderator: Did the operators tell you anything about their living conditions?

Crawford: “The entities communicating say that the next state is not a homogeneous whole, but that it is built up of ‘spheres’ and ‘realms,” and that they themselves do not all belong to one sphere.  Entities belonging to a higher sphere may come down at will to a lower, but not vice versa … The first sphere would seem to be the abode of people whose moral development was somewhat low as they passed from things terrestrial; who need a lot of cleaning up before they can rise into the second and higher spheres; in other words, the spheres next the earth are the abode of the riff-raff of humanity.  The entities tell me that all our experimental circles are guarded very strictly on their side so that no undesirable shall be able to get near.  As a matter of fact I would not care to be in the Belfast séance room if I had any doubt of the beneficent intentions of those behind the scenes.”

Moderator: Did they ever tell you why they are interested in demonstrating at these séances?

Crawford: “[Yes.] Their answer to this is that the mere fact of being engaged in producing the phenomena and thus doing useful work helps them in their own development.  For this and for other reasons I have rather come to the conclusion that one of the central ideas underlying the activities of the next state is that of service.” 

Moderator: Outside of the operators, are other spirits aware of what is going on?
Crawford:  “According to the operators the people on their side are somewhat curious about psychic phenomena.  I have often asked them if there were many looking on at our séances.  Whenever asked the questions they would begin rapping and keep on rapping until we were tired of hearing them.  They wished to indicate by this that there were great crowds of spirit people looking on.  They told me this was the case at all our séances.  They gave me the impression that the séance room and the sitters were surrounded by a huge invisible audience arranged in an orderly and disciplinary manner, perhaps tier upon tier as in a lecture theater.  The séance to many of them would appear to be as novel as it is to us.”

Moderator: Dr. Geley, I can see you want to add something.

Geley: “For my own part, if I may give a personal impression of what I have observed in the domain of mediumship, I should say that even if in a given case spiritist intervention could not be affirmed as a scientific certainty, one is obliged, willingly or unwillingly and on the aggregate of cases, to admit the possibility of such intervention. I think it is probable that there is, in mediumship, an action of intelligent entities distinct from the medium. I base this opinion not only on the alleged proofs of identity given by the communicators, which may be matters of controversy, but on the high and complex phenomena of mediumship. These frequently show direction and intention which cannot, unless very arbitrarily be referred to the medium or the experimenters. We do not find this direction and intelligence either in the normal consciousness of the medium, nor in his somnambulistic consciousness, nor in his impressions, his desires, or his fears, whether direct, indirect, suggested, or voluntary. We can neither produce the phenomena nor modify them. All happens as though the directing intelligence were independent and autonomous.  Even this is not all. This directing intelligence seems to be deeply aware of much that we do not know; it can distinguish between the essence of things and their representations; it knows these sufficiently to be able to modify as its will the relations which normally govern these representations in space and time. In a word, the higher phenomena of mediumship seem to indicate, to necessitate, and to proclaim direction, knowledge and abilities which surpass the powers – even the subconscious powers – of the mediums.”

Moderator:  Sir William, as the senior person here, would you like to wrap it up?

Crookes: “In old Egyptian days, a well-known inscription was carved over the portal of the temple of Isis: ‘I am whatever hath been, is, or ever will be; and my veil no man hath yet lifted.’ Not thus do modern seekers after truth confront Nature – the word that stands for the baffling mysteries of the Universe. Steadily, unflinchingly, we strive to pierce the inmost heart of Nature, from what she is to re-construct what she has been, and to prophesy what she yet shall be. Veil after veil we have lifted, and her face grows more beautiful, august, and wonderful, with every barrier that is withdrawn.” 

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His forthcoming book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is released on January 26, 2021.


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