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Robert Bell - Stranger than Fiction – 04 The effect was exactly like the throbbing and heaving immediately preceding an earthquake



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Robert Bell, 'Stranger than Fiction', Cornhill Magazine 2 (1860), 211-24.

Upon many subsequent occasions I have witnessed phenomena of a similar nature, and others of a much more startling character; in some instances, where the local conditions varied considerably, and in all where the circumstances under which the seances took place were wholly inconsistent with the practice of trickery or imposition. This last statement is of infinite importance in an inquiry of this kind. Every novelty in science, and even in literature and art, is exposed to the invasion of pretenders and charlatans. Every new truth has to pick its first steps through frauds. But new truths, or strange phenomena, are no more responsible for the quackeries that are put forward in their name by impostors, than for the illogical absurdities that are published in their defence by enthusiastic believers. Should chemistry and astronomy be ignored, because they were eliminated out of the half-fanatical and half fraudulent empiricism of the alchemists and astrologers ?

It is the province of men of science to investigate alleged phenomena irrespective of extrinsic incidents, and to clear away all impediments on their progress to pure truth, as nature casts aside the rubbish on the descent of the glacier.

The opportunities I have enjoyed of examining the phenomena to which I am referring, were such as a charlatan could hardly have tampered with, even had there been a person present who could be suspected of attempting a deception. Houses into which it would be impossible to introduce mechanical contrivances, to lay down electric wires, or to make preparations for the most ordinary tricks of collusion, without the assent or knowledge of the proprietors, and to which no previous access could be obtained for purposes of that description ; houses in which seances were held for the first time, without premeditation, and, therefore, without pre-arrangement;  and, above all, houses of people who were unbelievers, who were more curious than earnest, and who would be more inclined to lay traps for the exposure of frauds, than to help in the production of them ;—are not the most likely places to be selected by the conjuror for the exhibition of his legerdemain.

When I saw a table, at which two ladies were seated, moving towards me without any adequate impulse being imparted to it by visible means, I thought the fact sufficiently extraordinary ; but my wonder abated when, on subsequent occasions, I saw tables move apparently of their own volition, there being no persons near them ; large sofas advance from the walls against which they stood; and chairs, sometimes occupied, and sometimes empty, shift their places for the distance of a foot or a yard, in some cases easily, and in others with a slow, laborious movement. The catalogue might be readily enlarged, but the accumulation of examples would throw no additional light on the subject.

To this particular class of phenomena may be added an illustration of a different order, which, like these, would seem to require mechanical aids, but in this instance of vast power and extent. On the first occasion when I experienced the effect I am about to describe, there were five persons in the room. In other places, where it occurred subsequently, there were seven or more. The architecture of the houses in each case was wholly dissimilar, both as to the area and height of the apartments, and the age, size, and strength of the buildings. We were seated at a table at which some singular phenomena, accompanied by loud knocks on the walls and floor, had just occurred, when we became conscious of a strange vibration that palpitated through the entire room.

We listened and watched attentively.

The vibration grew stronger and stronger. It was palpably under our feet.

Our chairs shook, and the floor trembled violently. The effect was exactly like the throbbing and heaving which might be supposed to take place in a house in the tropics during the moment immediately preceding an earthquake. This violent motion continued for two or three minutes, then gradually subsided and ceased. Every person present was equally affected by it on each occasion when it occurred. To produce such a result by machinery might be possible if the introduction of the machinery itself were possible. But the supposition involves a difficulty somewhat similar to that of Mr. Knickerbocker's theory of the earth standing on the back of a tortoise, which might be an excellent theory if we could only ascertain what the tortoise stood upon.

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