Robert Bell - Stranger than Fiction – 02 The table commenced a vigorous movement across the floor
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Robert Bell, 'Stranger than Fiction', Cornhill Magazine 2 (1860), 211-24.
To begin my narrative at the beginning, it is necessary to say that I had heard, in common with all the world, of the marvels of spirit-rapping and table-turning ; and that my desire to witness phenomena which I found it impossible to believe, and difficult to doubt, considering the unquestionable judgment and integrity of some of my informants, was early gratified under the most favourable circumstances.
It must be understood that, although employing the terms spirit-rapping and table-turning, I by no means admit them to be accurate, or even appropriate. Quite the contrary. As descriptive phrases, they are simply absurd. They convey no notion whatever of the manifestations to which they are supposed to be applied; but they are convenient for my purpose, because they have passed into general use.
For my first experience, I must take the reader into a large drawing room.
The time is morning; and the only persons present are two ladies.
It is proper to anticipate any question that may arise at this point, by premising that the circumstances under which the seance took place precluded all suspicion of confederacy or trickery of any kind. There was nobody in the apartment capable of practising a deception, and no conceivable object to gain by it.
Being anxious to observe the proceedings in the first instance, before I took part in them, I sat at a distance of about six or seven feet from the tolerably heavy sofa table at which the ladies were placed, one at the end farthest from me, and the other at the side. It is important to note their positions, which show that if their hands had any influence upon the movements of the table, such influence must have operated at right angles, or in opposite directions. Their hands were placed very lightly on the table, and for three or four minutes we all remained perfectly still. The popular impression that it is indispensable for the hands of the sitters to touch each other, and that they must all concentrate their attention upon the hoped-for manifestation, is, like a multitude of other absurdities that are afloat on the subject, entirely unfounded.
No such conditions are necessary; and instead of concentrating the attention, it is often found desirable to divert attention to other matters, on grounds which, at present, may be considered experimental rather than positive.
After we had waited a few minutes, the table began to rock gently to and fro. The undulating motion gradually increased, and was quickly followed by tinkling knocks underneath, resembling the sounds that might be produced by rapid blows from the end of a pencil-case. The ladies were now en rapport with what may be called, to use a general term, the invisible agency by which the motions and noises were presumed to be produced.
The mode of communication is primitive enough. Questions are asked by the sitters, and answered by knocks; three indicating the affirmative, one the negative, and two, the doubtful, expressing such meanings as "perhaps," "presently," "not quite," &c., according to the nature of the inquiry.
When the answer requires many words, or when an original communication or " message" is to be conveyed, the alphabet is resorted to, and, the letters being repeated aloud, three knocks respond to each letter in the order in which it is to be taken down to spell out the sentence. People who have witnessed these processes will consider the description of them trivial; but I am not addressing the initiated. What is chiefly wanted in the attempt to render a clear account of unusual phenomena, is to light up every step of the way to the final results ; but persons familiar with the modus operandi are apt to think that everybody else is so, and to leave out those particulars which in reality constitute the very essence of the interest.
The employment of the alphabet is comparatively tedious ; but it is surprising with what celerity those who are accustomed to it catch the answers and jot them down. Nor is there anything much more curious in the whole range of the manifestations than the precision and swiftness with which each letter is seized, and struck under the table, at the instant it is pronounced.
During the whole time when these communications are going forward, it should be remembered that every person's hands are displayed on the surface of the table, so that no manipulation can take place beneath.
In a little while, at my request, a question was put as to whether I might join the seance. The answer was given in the affirmative, with tumultuous energy, and at the same moment the table commenced a vigorous movement across the floor, till it came up quite close to me.
The ladies were obliged to leave their chairs to keep up with it. The intimation understood to be conveyed by this movement was satisfaction at my accession to the seance ; which now commenced, and at which a multitude of raps were delivered, the table undergoing throes of corresponding variety.
In accordance with an instruction received through the alphabet, we finally removed to a small round table, which stood on a slender pillar, terminating in three claws. Here the noises and motions thronged upon us faster and faster, assuming, for the most part, a new character. Some times the knocks were gentle and almost timid, and the swaying backwards and forwards of the little table was slow and dilatory ; but presently came another phase of activity. The table seemed to be inspired with the most riotous animal spirits. I confess that, with the utmost sobriety of intention, I know no other way to describe the impression made upon me by the antics in which it indulged.
It pitched about with a velocity which flung off our hands from side to aide, as fast as we attempted to place them ; and the general effect produced was that of wild, rollicking glee, which fairly infected the three sitters, in spite of all their efforts to maintain a becoming gravity. But this was only preliminary to a demonstration of a much more singular kind.