The Thought Reader Craze: Victorian Science at the Enchanted Boundary by Barry H. Wiley
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2013)
Barry Wiley, a retired businessman is also an historian, journalist, and novelist with a particular interest in the history of mind-reading, spiritualism, mentalism, and related subjects. His books include the excellent works, The Indescribable Phenomenon—The Life and Mysteries of Anna Eva Fay (reviewed earlier in Genii) and The Georgia Wonder—Lulu Hurst and The Secret That Shook America.
In his newest book, The Thought Reader Craze, Mr. Wiley traces the history of the ground-breaking performers of "second-sight" and muscle-reading in the late 19'h century, and the frequent deception by such performers of scientists, academics, and other leading lights of the age who, in the heyday of spiritualism, attempted to prove (and disprove) the existence of mind-reading as a scientific reality.
Casual students of the history of mentalism and spiritualism will recognize some of the big name players here, including such lowlights as Washington Irving Bishop, who invented the blindfold drive and helped to make muscle-reading a standard of the mentalist's catalogue, and the medium Daniel Dunglas Home, to whom some spiritualists still point as the one true medium of the spiritualism fad. But few if any enthusiasts for such subjects will come away from Mr. Wiley's thoroughly researched and substantiated book without a bountiful array of fresh information.
It's often difficult to look back at this period and under-stand how spiritualism became a religious phenomenon throughout the United States and United Kingdom for some 75 years, and how seemingly rational minds invested such energy and commitment not only in allowing them-selves to be deceived, but in seemingly willfully co-conspiring in their own self-deception. After all, as the author writes in his first chapter; "Why would disembodied spirits come all the way back from eternity only to converse by beating on tables—and then only to communicate trivialities devoid of insight or wisdom ..." Why indeed? Yet people still line up to pay good money to see similar banalities delivered by the likes of James van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, and John Edward.
There were many elements at work that are often overlooked today. The Edwardian era was a time of scientific, technological, and industrial revolution. The birth of spiritualism was seen by many as an opportunity to use breakthrough scientific thinking and techniques in order to at last prove the reality of the fundamental tenet on which much of religious edifice rests, namely the existence of an afterlife. Spiritualism, and its scientific examination, was an attempt to reconcile the timeless conflict between science and religion—a battle which continues today, and which has often embroiled elements of magic and magicians, from Jamesian witch burnings to the exposure of fraudulent spirit mediums. (Yet another element of spiritualism was socioeconomic: namely that mediumship was one of few opportunities for an unmarried woman to earn an independent and substantial living. However, the "thought reader" phenomenon was populated mostly by men.)
Mr. Wiley's careful research provides deeper insights into the unfolding of the spiritualism phenomenon, pointing out, for example, that the religious movement that began in America in 1848, courtesy of the Fox sisters, remained rooted in working and middle class American culture, promulgated by a steady supply of professional mediums; while in its earliest days in England, spiritualism was more of an amateur upper class pursuit, until the arrival of the medium D.D. Home there, which led to increasing notice by the nobility and men of science, along with a growing interest in professional mediumship.
Much of the book is a study in stubborn credulity. The scientist William Crookes, famous for his less than objective "investigations" into spiritualism (and particularly his association with Annie Eva Fay), in Wiley's view, was motivated "not by scientific objectivity, but rather by his need to confirm a position he had already taken." How Crookes was taken in by D.D. Home indeed, Crookes's first subject is reported here in detail. Wiley describes how, "... instead of the well-planned scientist, William Crookes, officiating at a set of carefully planned scientific experiments, as his public report strongly implied, it was Daniel Home via the spirit presence who largely directed the proceedings."
And isn't this invariably the case when scientists try to examine professional deceivers? The lesson stubbornly ignored by the examiners—is driven home again and again in Mr. Wiley's detailed history, and we need only look a century later, when American parapsychologists net upon studying two young psychics named Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, to be left aghast at how some lessons are never learned. (For those who came in late, Steve Shaw is now known as Banachek, and the notorious lesson in question, orchestrated by James Randi, is known as Project Alpha.)
Then there's J. Randall Brown, who became, in 1873, "the first person to perform a one-man thought-reading act," and the first person to do so professionally. By the next year he left his family machine shop business behind and embraced the life of a professional showman. Brown was a talented master of muscle-reading, and like many of his ilk and era, was eager to deceive scientists and academics in pursuit of proving his claims of paranormal abilities.
Other characters in this passion play include the Creery family, with multiple children who could communicate thoughts to one another, subjected to many serious tests and examinations, and whose secret codes failed to be detected by scientists who know nothing of deception but refuse to believe they can be deceived. And there is Stuart Cumberland, who became Europe's leading thought-reader in the aftermath of Bishop's early and strange death. Cumberland, a former butcher, along with Brown and Bishop, were the three pioneers of the thought-reading craze.
Over and over again the same lesson prevails—that in a field where deception is a possibility, scientists are helpless and hopeless without the expertise of qualified conjurors. The book recounts an incredible event in which the prominent physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, seated in the audience and witnessing David Devant's "Second Sight" performance, stands up and publicly declares it to be a supernatural event—putting Devant and his colleague, Nevil Maskelyne, in a distinctly uncomfortable circum-stance, in the face of such profound foolishness.
Barry Wiley is a first rate researcher, and his book is such a thorough piece of work that it will not fail to register its wonders and revelations with anyone even mildly interested in the material. The prose is less than lively at times, and newcomers to the subject matter might find it a dense trail to follow. The book is required reading however for any self-styled skeptic who wants to try to understand how tricksters and con men manage to be elevated as prophets and saints, be it millennia ago or on today's morning talk show. Wiley reveals excesses and errors on all sides of the drama, including for example how Nevil Maskelyne won a libel suit against Washington Irving Bishop, but would never see a dollar of the substantial reward; elsewhere how Maskelyne, the crusading exposer of psychic fraud, was not beyond inventing answers and solutions when he had no idea how Annie Eva Fay had beaten William Crookes's galvanometer tests. (Wiley provides in the addenda a somewhat condensed version of his close examination of the galvanometer experiment that he first provided in The Indescribable Phenomenon.)
But it will be up to the reader to recognize the terrible human costs of these manipulators and predators. What were the emotional costs to grieving families who paid with their hearts and time and money, all investments in the fakery of mediums who preyed on frailty and ignrance? And what was the cost to society of half a century or more of entertainers leading scientific researchers astray in an endless game of blind man's bluff? Humans are trusting creatures by nature, an invaluable survival tool for human relations, that makes it difficult for people to believe they can be effectively lied to straight-faced, be it by attention-hungry children or bold-faced sociopaths. The lessons can be harsh but they are worth studying.