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Observations placeholder

Varley, C F - 03 Experiments in spiritualism



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

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

Two years earlier Varley had used the material tools of the electrician's trade to extend the work of Faraday, William Robert Grove FRS and others on the correlation of forces in a radical new, spiritual, direction.

In séances held in New York with the famous American medium Kate Fox, Varley was given permission to use electrical apparatus in an attempt to establish the ‘analogies existing between the forces [he] was dealing with, and those which [the spirits] employ’.

He was impressed with the ability of the ‘spirits’ accurately and repeatedly to determine when he touched an electrical circuit, in which direction the current flowed through his body, and when he placed a magnetized coil of wire over his head. Since the séance was conducted in the ‘dark’, Varley was satisfied that no mortals in the room (including himself) knew exactly what he was doing and could not therefore have faked the effects of intelligent spirits.

Varley also concluded that the spirits were not able to see what he was doing by sensing ‘electric and magnetic streams’ because he established from dialogue with them that they regarded both magnets and crystals as magnetic. The ‘spirits’ seemed clearly to be mistaking ‘other powers’ accompanying electricity and magnetism for the forces themselves.

What made the existence of other such powers plausible was the work of the early nineteenth-century German industrial chemist Karl von Reichenbach. From the late 1840s Reichenbach had published experimental evidence of a new universal force, christened ‘od’, which was imperceptible to all but certain ‘sensitive’ individuals whose reaction to the force including seeing a multi-coloured luminous aura or ‘flames’ around magnets, crystals and other objects.

Karl von Reichenbach claimed that although invisible to most people, these mysterious lights were seen by his ‘sensitive’ human subjects surrounding various bodies including magnets , the human head and hand, and plants.

Much to Reichenbach's chagrin, mesmerists identified ‘od’ as the source of the ‘magnetic fluid’ involved in mesmeric healing and clairvoyance, and spiritualists often claimed ‘od’ as the physical channel through which spirits of the dead interacted with the living.

Reichenbach's proposed association between magnetism and light seemed plausible to many readers of his work, given Faraday's 1845 evidence of the magnetic rotation of the plane of polarized light and by works by Grove and the physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter FRS on the correlation of physical forces.

Although Reichenbach's claims failed to convince the leading Berlin physicists whom he invited in the early 1860s to witness his experiments on photographing ‘od’ luminosity, he gained notable champions elsewhere, including the Scottish chemist and writer on mesmerism, William Gregory, who produced one of the two Victorian translations of Reichenbach's major treatise and supplemented it with his own evidence illustrating the ‘truth and exactitude’ of his fellow chemist's claims.

Varley's sympathetic attitude to Reichenbach doubtless owed something to Gregory's efforts but probably more to experiences of his wife's alleged sensitivity to ‘od’. Indeed, it was her perception of ‘od’ that prompted Varley's speculation that ‘spirits’ also had this faculty and used it to tell what he was doing with the electrical circuit.


The source of the experience

Varley, C F

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items


Activities and commonsteps