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Observations placeholder

Varley, C F - 01 Experiments in spiritualism



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism - Richard Noakes

Not long before the EITC was dissolved, Varley declared publicly that he was convinced of the evidence for spiritualism.

In the early 1850s he had joined the thousands of other people in Britain, Europe and the United States who were enquiring into table-turning, spirit-rapping and other early manifestations of what became known as ‘Modern Spiritualism’.

He agreed with Michael Faraday FRS that the supposedly new force that turned tables was not, as many supposed, electricity, but he was not convinced by the claim, made by Faraday and many others, that most phenomena of spiritualism could be put down to known forces and that the subject was therefore unworthy of further investigation.

Indeed, far from agreeing with Faraday that enquiring into the so-called ‘spirits’ of séances was scientifically worthless and morally perilous, Varley joined many others, including Augustus de Morgan FRS and Alfred Russel Wallace FRS, in regarding spiritualism as an empirical way of elucidating new laws of nature and a potentially more satisfactory way of answering spiritual questions unanswered by established religions.

Varley did not have to go very far to gain his most important experiences of spiritualism. In the late 1850s he claimed to have developed mesmeric powers, which he used to entrance his wife Ellen who, in this state, displayed the apparent ability to perceive distant objects and scenes (clairvoyance) and to communicate with others by thought alone.

Ellen was one of many Victorian mesmeric subjects whose extraordinary mental skills helped her to cultivate apparent powers of spiritual mediumship in which capacity she became the channel through which invisible intelligent agencies manifested themselves to the living, typically via a ‘telegraphic’ code of raps on furniture.

Séances with Ellen convinced Cromwell Varley that the invisible agents were genuine spirits of the dead, and sittings with the notable Scottish–American medium D. D. Home persuaded him that Home had the ability to move objects at a distance by some unknown force.

Convinced that he was not the victim of self-delusion or trickery, Varley proclaimed in 1869 that he was a spiritualist because he had distinctly seen ‘spirits’, because ‘spirits’ had relayed information known only to him and deceased persons allegedly communicating from beyond the grave, and because ‘spirits’ had correctly predicted the time and nature of future events unanticipated by all present in séances.

The source of the experience

Varley, C F

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items


Activities and commonsteps



Being left handed