The Mediumship of William Eglinton
William Eglinton, born in Islington, London, on 10 July, 1857 has come to be known as one of the greatest physical mediums of nineteenth century Britain. This arose from demonstrating a broad range of phenomena associated with survival, in addition to gaining a favourable reputation in many countries abroad.
It was at the age of sixteen when he became aware of his mediumistic abilities, this being after his father developed an interest in Spiritualism and decided to form a circle at his home. Somewhat ironically, William disapproved of the meetings but was challenged to attend, and on doing so, it was recorded that: 'the table began to show signs of life...it suddenly rose off the ground, and steadily raised itself in the air, until we had to stand to reach it. This was in full gaslight'.(1) A further indication of William's mediumship was that on questions being asked, the table rapped out intelligent answers: this was followed by William entering a trance-state. It was a few months after this séance that Joey Sandy, who was to be William's control from thereon, made himself known, and remarkable phenomena were manifested during the circle meetings. When Joey materialized, he was easily distinguishable from William as he was particularly small, youthful-looking, and estimated to be about two-thirds of the medium's weight.
In time, other materializations began to appear in the séance room, with some degree of light present. Not surprisingly, many people sought to witness William's mediumship, and he then devoted himself to this on a professional basis, giving up his occupation. He demonstrated at various locations, and a number of his séances were those in a series arranged by Charles Blackburn who had generously sponsored Florence Cook. Fodor noted how, 'another feature emphatically in favour of Eglinton was that from the time he turned professional until 1883 he never gave a séance in his own rooms and complied with all conditions of control'.(2) During these séances, William's hands were secured, either by being fastened to his knees, or behind his back. Despite the extent of the control, the phenomena were still produced, including the feat of levitation: on one occasion William was 'entranced and carried by invisible power over the table several times'.(3)
Various publications reported the truly extraordinary powers that William manifested, e.g. the Daily Telegraph (10 October, 1876) detailed how direct spirit writing was obtained despite the stringent conditions imposed by the scientific committee that was present. Of all the phenomena that occurred, it was naturally the event of materializations that demonstrated the true extent of William's mediumship. Dr Nichols, who arranged séances in a special room in his own house, testified to how, 'Four times I have seen...'Joey'...I have seen him standing beside his medium, and I have heard him speak in a brilliantly-lighted room...I have seen full forms appear and disappear'.(4)
The full scope of William's ability was surely illustrated by materializations who appeared during open-air séances. Epes Sargent recorded in The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism, how four materializations appeared in the garden, and one casually strolled about, interacting with the sitters; on one occasion, the next- world visitor was nearly seventy feet away from the medium. Indeed, as Leaf remarks, 'Some of Mr. William Eglinton's best successes were obtained in the open-air in a good light'.(5) A materialization séance was described in Medium (25 August 1876). In this, Miss Glynn described how she and a number of acquaintances met in her own home and shortly after the séance began, loud raps were heard that were replies to questions being asked. This was followed by the sitters hearing Joey's voice, but the next stage was the one that caused amazement for those present. Miss Glynn records how, 'we were suddenly startled and not a little amazed by seeing a shadowy form pass between Mr. Eglinton and myself'. The figure was identified as Miss Glynn's grandmother. Then, 'whilst she was in full view of us, another and smaller form came between the other spirit-form and myself, whom I immediately recognised by questions which I asked him, and which I afterwards saw was a brother whom I had lost twelve or thirteen years ago...the forms faded from our view, and all was quietness for some few minutes'.(6) In addition to such demonstrations of the reality of survival, there was the occasion on 16 March 1878, when William was transported to another part of a property in which he was situated, details of which were published the following week.(7)
William's reputation was challenged when Archdeacon Colley claimed that he was resorting to fraud to produce the phenomena; however, despite the BNAS Council deciding to investigate the accusation, it was found that 'no direct evidence could be obtained from the accusers'.(8) During this period, William was in South Africa successfully demonstrating his mediumship; he returned to Britain in 1879 and continued to provide evidence of survival, one of the sitters being Florence Marryat who recorded what she witnessed in her book, There is No Death. In this she described how, after Joey spoke to the sitters, 'the figures of two or three Englishmen came, friends of others of the audience'. After this, Abdullah, another of William's controls, appeared, and Mrs Marryat commented on how his appearance could not be mistaken, as he was over six foot in height.(9) She also gave an excellent example of the independence of the materialized persons who joined them: for a seance at her sister's residence, William was placed in one room and duly locked in, with the circle members sitting around him. Joey materialized and walked through the locked door and proceeded to go into a number of other rooms in the dwelling, bringing back articles from each of the rooms that he had visited. Mrs. Marryat also recorded the instance when she placed a piece of card within a book, and with her hand and William's hand placed upon it, and not relaxing her hold of the book, she then examined the card and found a personal message from her daughter addressed to her.(10)
An impressive event occurred when Mrs. Marryat attended a séance on 5 September, 1884: after a number of persons materialized, Mrs. Marryat's own daughter appeared. She remarked: 'Then came my daughter Florence, a girl of nineteen by that time, very slight and feminine in appearance. She advanced two or three times, near enough to touch me...she returned, dragging Mr. Eglinton after her'. This was followed by her daughter speaking to her about a matter that she said was 'known to no one but myself', and then appearing for a second time with William, and this being witnessed by ten sitters.(11) Mrs. Marryat went on to record how the next person to materialize through William's mediumship, was recognized by one of the sitters to be his niece, who had died the previous year; other séances were no less spectacular, i.e. instances when two different sitters were reunited with their brothers on the same occasion. She also noted how séances were invariably accompanied by William levitating and the occasion when, as each person materialized, 'the name was announced, written on the air in letters of fire, which moved round the circle in front of the sitters'.(12)
The separateness of William from the materializations who joined the séances was also testified to by Dr Carter Blake. He recorded in the Spiritualist (6 April 1877), how, when William was sitting on a chair in the cabinet, Abdullah appeared at the curtain and walked to the centre of the seance room. Joey then appeared and complying with a request made, drew back the cabinet curtains to show William inside at the same time that Abdullah could be seen standing. Following this, William rose up from his chair and stood opposite Abdullah. Blake continues: 'This was clearly seen by all present during an interval of time which I estimate as six minutes, and in what has been termed "quarter gaslight". Eglinton then sat down in his chair, and the form Abdullah appeared to vanish into Eglinton, appearing to unite with him'. While all this was happening, 'The voice called that of "Joey" was chattering around and about the walls of the cabinet all the time'.(13)
The extent of William's ability was further demonstrated by the fact that while he was 'ignorant of foreign languages', communicators speaking these would 'return through him to converse with their friends'.(14) The final note made by Mrs. Marryat in her book related to the phenomenon of slate-writing and she gave an example of William's mediumship making this possible. This was the occasion when a Mr. Edgar Lee met William for the first time, and evidence from slate-writing was produced. The apparatus was two slates, in mahogany frames, with hinges to link them together, and a lock to keep them securely closed. The slates, having been cleaned, had chalk placed inside them, and were locked. The slates were placed on a table and remained visible to all who were there. Mr. Lee placed a hand on them, and William then rested his own hand on Mr. Lee's. After a few successful tests, William asked Mr. Lee to think of someone from whom he would like to hear. He did so and a scratching noise was heard on the slates; on being unlocked there was a message from his cousin regarding a boy who had been left in his care. Even more interesting was the fact that the message was addressed not to an 'Edgar', but 'Will'. At this point 'Edgar Lee' admitted the name by which he had introduced himself was in fact a pseudonym, and his correct name was William Tasker. Naturally, Mr. Tasker was delighted with what had occurred and wrote a report that was published in the St. Stephen's Review, and was accompanied by a photograph of the slate.
In March 1880, William travelled to Saxony and gave demonstrations of his mediumship to academics there. An account of one, was written by a Dr Kellner and appeared in Licht Mehr Licht. After this, William travelled to Dresden, then Prague and Vienna where many of the sitters were prominent society figures. In Vienna, police made William unwelcome although he was determined to demonstrate to those who requested this. The records of some of the séances that took place detail how in one case, William entered the library of an interested party and sat facing him and his associate. They became aware of a 'cool breeze' on the backs of their hands and this was followed by the musical clock beginning to play. A blue light appeared that illuminated a head and the principal sitter recorded that 'the light was so strong that the head of an Oriental, with a thin waving beard, white turban and drapery, was distinctly visible...The form stood on the table...I can most emphatically declare that from the likeness and the whole nature of the appearance, it could by no possibility be Eglinton's head'.(15)
After this series of demonstrations, William travelled to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and while abroad, received favourable reports by those who witnessed his mediumship. After returning to Britain, he went to New York in 1881 and then sailed to India. While here, he established a feat that Fodor said was 'almost unprecedented in the annals of Spiritualism'.(16) This involved transporting privately marked sheets of paper by his spirit helpers to London and these being returned to Calcutta. Due to the attention that his activity attracted, Harry Kellar, a magician, issued a challenge to William that was taken up. Kellar later conceded, 'I went as a sceptic, but I must own that I came away utterly unable to explain, by any natural means, the phenomena that I witnessed'.(17) In fact, he really had little choice in the matter, as, when meeting William and holding his hand, he was levitated with him. Kellar's affirmation was in marked contrast to other investigators who procrastinated, or later retracted their opinion, as he repeated his positive opinion in writing at a later date.
Before returning to Britain in Spring 1882, William met Mme. Blavatsky, one of the leading Theosophists at the time, who was eventually exposed by the SPR. Before his journey back, his controls, very unwisely, prompted him to become involved with Mme. Blavatsky, and the events that occurred, involving the transportation of letters between them, was seen to be fraudulent, and damaged his reputation. After arriving in Britain and an unsuccessful attempt to become involved in publishing, William returned to his mediumship: however, by this time, it was apparent that his 'mediumship had passed through its more flamboyant and dramatic phase...when spirit figures obligingly materialized at his séances [and] objects flew through the air with the greatest of ease.(18) He therefore concentrated on slate-writing; this was very successful with W. E. Gladstone having a sitting in which questions in different languages were asked, and duly answered in the same language. In 1885, William left for Europe and gave sittings to Prof. Richet who admitted: 'Eglinton was a very powerful medium and though he has been suspected of fraud, he was able, finally, to prove that the allegations of his enemies were calumnies'.(19) Other persons who witnessed his mediumship, e.g. Alfred Russel Wallace, were equally impressed. Mr. Meugens, a man respected in the world of business in both England and India, and an experienced inquirer, recorded an event when William arrived in India to stay with him. William went to sleep, and in the light that was available, Meugens heard a female voice speaking through William and asking Meugens not to fall asleep. Watching the area where William was sleeping, Meugens saw, as he records, 'what appeared to be a small cloud of something like muslin. This gradually developed until I could make out what appeared to be a human form draped in white.' The figure came towards Meugens and he says, 'I could see that it was the figure of a woman, tall and graceful'. After some brief conversation, he goes on to add, 'I heard distinctly the whisper, "God bless you". She then glided back to the corner where she had started from, and gradually dissolved or faded out of view'. During this time Meugens reports that 'all this time Eglinton lay perfectly still on the bed'. (20)
One of many examples of the evidential communications was that recorded by E. Dawson Rogers, a leading spiritualist (who suggested a society such as the SPR). On 13 March, 1883, he attended a séance with a number of others, with William as the medium. William asked that a piece of paper be produced and initialled by all those present. This was done, and placed inside a book that was placed in front of Rogers. After a short while, William requested that the book be opened. On doing this, the paper was no longer there and been replaced by a card that gave the message: 'I am taking care of Frank, to whom I send my regards. Don't be anxious'. Rogers advises that Frank was one of his sons who was ill at that time although he had no idea of the seriousness of his ill-health: in fact, only three days later he died. Less than a year later, Frank was able to communicate directly to his father, with William as the medium. A note was produced with a message in which Frank stated that he could not write very much, although he hoped to communicate in due course, with more ease. It was interesting to note the message was not in Frank's handwriting, although Rogers also noted it was wholly unlike William's. However, the signature was Frank's. Therefore, it would seem, another person on Frank's side was assisting him. Of the signature, Rogers states, it was 'beyond a doubt that of my son...no one who knew his writing could hesitate for a moment to declare that the signature was most certainly his'.(21)
Examples of William's mediumship being able to facilitate numerous materialized persons during the one séance have already been given, but two further instances are worth mentioning for the evidential value. On 10 November 1884, a séance was held with six sitters. After the room was examined, the only door was locked and paper seals were placed on the door and lintel post, and William went into trance. Shortly afterwards a figure appeared at the curtain and the narrator, J. H. Mitchener, states he was 'instantly recognized'. As soon as this person had made himself known, he withdrew and 'a lovely female figure' appeared and Mitchener recognized her as his sister-in-law. He asked whether she could bring 'the child' and after retiring for only a moment, his sister-in-law returned with a 'little girl of between five and six years of age': the two together presented a 'charm of outline and grace of attitude that defy description'. Other next-world visitors materialized and Mitchener commented upon, 'the rapidity with which, hitherto, the materialisations had followed each other'.(22)
Colonel Leon described how, in 1878, he attended seances with William and other sitters at the BNAS (British National Association of Spiritualists). On the first occasion, after William had passed into trance, a woman appeared that Leon says that he and his wife, 'instantly recognised a sister of my wife, called Emily, who had been dead about six years'. The same evening, Leon and his wife communicated with Emily by table-turning, and she confirmed that she had materialized at the seance earlier that day, and added that she would do this again and so they could be sure that it was her, she told them: 'I will hold up my hand'. At the next sitting, Emily materialized as she had promised and duly raised her hand.(23) William's mediumship was also significant in the effect that it made upon the infant SPR; in June 1886, the SPR's Mrs Sidgwick wrote an article in the Journal in which she expressed her view that William's mediumship was 'simply conjuring'; this proposal was followed by heated discussion about the genuineness of William's mediumship.(24) The crisis was certainly exacerbated by S. J. Davey, a young member of the SPR, being able to reproduce the slate writing by normal means. In view of the SPR article, 'a number of prominent spiritualists, including [the aforementioned] Rogers himself resigned from the Society in protest'.(25) The emphasis was on the aspect of slate-writing, and while some, e.g. H. Carvill Lewis believed there was fraud, others such as Angelo J. Lewis, who had studied William on the SPR's behalf, stated that a conjuror could not use trickery 'under the same conditions...necessary to produce all these phenomena without exposing himself to the constant risk of detection'.(26) Others, such as the conjuror, George Herschell, said much the same thing.
Through this episode, the SPR lost some of its most dedicated members, although Mrs Sidgwick, who welcomed the departure of Spiritualists, could not have been satisfied with the small number that did actually leave. In fact, the majority remained, and the SPR continued to attract Spiritualists to its membership, as is the situation to the present time. As Gauld remarks, William 'succeeded in convincing a number of eminent people of his genuineness', and despite the belief of Mrs Sidgwick, many people did accept the reality of William's abilities and 'explicitly stated that they had maintained a continuous check upon both medium and slates at crucial times'. Moreover, while Davey was undoubtedly successful in imitating William's activity, he was not able to duplicate all the forms of phenomena that William produced, e.g. book-tests.(27)
In Nicol's essay on fraudulent mediumship, he deals with the phenomena that occurred with William, and mentions the levitations and materializations that took place. However, he chooses to say nothing further about these and passes, very swiftly, on to the subject of the slate-writing and Davey's activities.(28) In the upshot, as Fodor points out, after reading of the sittings given by William, that exceeded three thousand in number, 'one cannot fail to be impressed that the conclusions of Mrs. Sidgwick were too hastily drawn'.(29) Moreover, Edward T. Bennett, assistant secretary to the SPR at the time, admitted as much when he said the matter had been left in an unsatisfactory state. Sadly, the damage had been done but undeterred, William then travelled to Russia and gave demonstrations to experienced sitters, e.g. Aksakoff, who had no doubts about William's ability. In sum, for many of those who witnessed his ability during these years, evidence of survival that was both indisputable and spectacular was obtained through William Eglinton's physical mediumship.
NB. It should be noted that despite the antagonism by the SPR's Mrs Sidgwick (1845-1936) towards physical mediumship, she stated in 1917 that the concept of persons surviving death, and communication with them, 'is greatly justified and supported by scientific evidence', and the dead 'can, under whatever limited conditions, at times communicate with the living' (PSPR, 29 (1917), p.259). Furthermore, by 1932, she said there was sufficient evidence to generate belief in survival; therefore, as Balfour said of her, she was 'a firm believer both in survival and in the reality of communication between the living and the dead' (PSPR, 41 (1932-33), p.26).
(1)Cit., J. S. Farmer, Twixt Two Worlds (London: Psychological Press, 1886), p.3.
(2)N. Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science (London: Arthurs Press, 1933), p.118.
(3)The Spiritualist, 2 June, 1876.
(4)Cit., Fodor, Op. Cit., p.119.
(5)H. Leaf, What Mediumship Is (London: Spiritualist Press, [n.d]), p.117.
(6)Cit., Farmer, Op. Cit., pp. 15-16.
(7)The Spiritualist, 22 March 1878.
(8)Fodor, Op. Cit., p.119.
(9)F. Marryat, There is No Death (London: Psychic Book Club, 1917), p.120.
(10)Marryat, Op. Cit., pp.123-124.
(11)Marryat, Op. Cit., p.125.
(12)Marryat, Op. Cit., p.129.
(13)Cit., Farmer, Op. Cit., p.19.
(14)Marryat, Op. Cit., p.129.
(15)Cit., Farmer, Op. Cit., p.64.
(16)Fodor, Op. Cit., p.120.
(17)Ct. Fodor, Op. Cit., p.120.
(18)J. Oppenheim, The Other World (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), p.139.
(19)Cit., Fodor, Op. Cit., p.121.
(20)Cit., Farmer, Op. Cit.,
First Published on the Noah’s Ark Website and republished here with their kind permission.