Dr. Carpenter on “Tree-Trickery” and H. P. Blavatsky on Fakir “Jugglery”
Religio-Philosophical Journal, December 22, 1877
A wise saying that which affirms that he who seeks to prove too much, in the end proves nothing. Professor W. B. Carpenter, F.R.S. (and otherwise alphabetically adorned), furnishes a conspicuous example in his strife with men better than himself. His assaults accumulate bitterness with every new periodical he makes his organ; and in proportion with the increase of his abuse his arguments lose force and cogency. And, forsooth, he nevertheless lectures his antagonists for their lack of “calm discussion,” as though he were not the very type of controversial nitro-glycerine! Rushing at them with his proofs, which are “incontrovertible” only in his own estimation, he commits himself more than once. By one of such committals I mean to profit today, by citing some curious experience of my own.
My object in writing the present is far from that of taking any part in this onslaught upon reputations. Messrs. Wallace and Crookes are well able to take care of themselves. Each has contributed in his own specialty towards real progress in useful knowledge more than Dr. Carpenter in his. Both have been honored for valuable original researches and discoveries, while their accuser has been often charged of being no better than a very clever compiler of other men’s ideas. After reading the able rejoinders of the “defendants,” and the scathing review of the Mace-swinging Professor Buchanan, everyone—except his friends, the psychophobists—can see that Dr. Carpenter is completely floored. He is as dead as the traditional door-nail.
In the December Supplement of the Popular Science Monthly, I find (p. 116) the interesting admission that a poor Hindu juggler can perform a feat that quite takes the great Professor’s breath away! In comparison, the mediumistic phenomena of Miss Nichol (Mrs. Guppy) are of no account. “The celebrated ‘tree-trick,’” says Dr. Carpenter, “which most people who have been long in India have seen, as described by several of our most distinguished civilians and scientific officers, is simply the greatest marvel I (he) ever heard of. That a mango tree should first shoot up to a height of six inches, from a grass-plot to which the conjurers had no previous access, beneath an inverted cylindrical basket, whose emptiness has been previously demonstrated, and that this tree should appear to grow in the course of half an hour from six inches to six feet, under a succession of taller and yet taller baskets, quite beats Miss Nichol.”
Well, I should think it did. At any rate it beats anything that any F.R.S. can show by daylight or dark, in the Royal Institution or elsewhere. Would not one think that such a phenomenon so attested and occurring under circumstances that preclude trickery, would provoke scientific investigation? If not, what would? But observe the knot hole through which an F.R.S. can creep out. “Does Mr. Wallace,” ironically asks the Professor, “attribute this to a spiritual agency? or, like the world in general (of course meaning the world that science created and Carpenter energizes) and the performers of the ‘tree-trick’ in particular, does he regard it as a piece of clever jugglery?”
Leaving Mr. Wallace—if he survives this Jovian thunderbolt—to answer for himself, I have to say for the “performers,” that they would respond with an emphatic “No” to both interrogatories. The Hindu jugglers neither claim for their performance a “spiritual agency,” nor admit it to be a “trick of clever jugglery.” The ground they take is that the tricks are produced by certain powers inherent in man himself, which may be used for a good or bad purpose. And the ground that I, humbly following after those whose opinion is based on really exact psychological experiments and knowledge take, is that neither Dr. Carpenter nor his bodyguard of scientists, though their titles stream after their names like the tail after a kite, have as yet the slightest conception of these powers. To acquire even a superficial knowledge of them, they must change their scientific and philosophical methods. Following after Wallace and Crookes they must begin with the A B C of Spiritualism, which, meaning to be very scornful, Dr. Carpenter terms “the centre of enlightenment and progress.” They must take their lessons not alone from the true but as well from spurious phenomena, from what his (Carpenter’s) chief authority, the “arch priest of the new religion,” properly classifies as “Delusions, Absurdities and Trickeries.” After wading through all this, as every intelligent investigator has had to do, he may get some glimpses of truth. It is as useful to learn what the phenomena are not, as to find out what they are.
Dr. Carpenter has two patent keys warranted to unlock every secret door of the mediumistic cabinet. They are labelled “expectancy” and “prepossession.” Most scientists have some pick-lock like this. But to the “tree-trick” they scarcely apply; for neither his “distinguished civilians” nor “scientific officers,” could have expected to see a stark naked Hindu, on a strange grass-plot, in full daylight make a mango grow six feet from the seed in half an hour; their “prepossessions” would be all against it. It can’t be a “spiritual agency,” it must be “jugglery.” Now, Maskelyne and Cooke, two clever English jugglers, have been keeping the mouths and eyes of all London wide open with their exposures of Spiritualism. They are admired by all the scientists, and at Slade’s trial figured as expert witnesses for the prosecution. They are at Dr. Carpenter’s elbow. Why does he not call them to explain this clever jugglery, and make Messrs. Wallace and Crookes blush with shame at their own idiocy? All the tricks of the trade are familiar to them; where can science find better allies? But we must insist upon identical conditions. The “tree-trick” must not be performed by gaslight on the platform of any Egyptian Hall, nor with the performers in full evening dress. It must be in broad daylight, on a strange grass-plot to which the conjurers had no previous access. There must be no machinery, no confederates. White cravats and swallow-tailed coats must be laid aside and the English champions appear in the primitive apparel of Adam and Eve—a tight-fitting “coat of skin,” and with the single addition of a dhoti, or a breech cloth seven inches wide. The Hindus do all this, and we only ask fair play. If they raise a mango sapling under these circumstances, Dr. Carpenter will be at perfect liberty to beat with it the last remnant of brains out of the head of any “crazy Spiritualist” he may encounter. But until then, the less he says about Hindu jugglery the better for his scientific reputation.
It is not to be denied that in India, China and elsewhere in the East there are veritable jugglers who exhibit tricks. Equally true is it that some of these performances surpass any with which Western people are acquainted. But these are neither “fakirs” nor the performers of the “mango tree” marvel, as described by Dr. Carpenter. Even this is sometimes imitated both by Indian and European adepts in sleight-of-hand, but under totally different conditions. Modestly following in the rear of the “distinguished civilians” and “scientific officers,” I will now narrate something which I have seen with my own eyes.
While at Cawnpoor, en route to Benares, the holy city, a lady, my travelling companion, was robbed of the entire contents of a small trunk. Jewellery, dresses, and even her notebook, containing a diary which she had been carefully compiling for over three months, had mysteriously disappeared, without the lock of the valise having been disturbed. Several hours, perhaps a night and a day had passed since the robbery, as we had started at daybreak to explore some neighboring ruins, yet freshly allied with the Nana Sahib’s reprisals on the English. My companion’s first thought was to call upon the local police—mine for the help of some native “gosa-in” (a holy man supposed to be informed of everything) or at least a “jadu-gar” or conjurer. But the ideas of civilization prevailed, and a whole week was wasted in fruitless visits to the “chabutara” (police house) and interviews with the “kotwal”—its chief. In despair, my expedient was at last resorted to, and a gosa-in procured. We occupied a small bungalow at the extreme end of one of the suburbs, on the right bank of the Ganges, and from the verandah a full view of the river was had, which at that place was very narrow.
Our experiment was made on that verandah, in the presence of the family of the landlord—a half-caste Portuguese from the South—my friend and myself, and two freshly imported Frenchmen, who laughed outrageously at our superstition. Time, three o’clock in the afternoon. The heat was suffocating, but notwithstanding, the holy man—a coffee-colored, living skeleton—demanded that the motion of the punkah (hanging fan worked by a cord) should be stopped. He gave no reason, but it was because the agitation of the air interferes with all delicate magnetic experiments. We had all heard of the “rolling-pot,” as an agency for the detection of theft in India, a common iron pot being made under the influence of a Hindu conjurer, to roll of its own impulse, without any hand touching it, to the very spot where the stolen goods are concealed. The gosa-in proceeded otherwise. He first of all demanded some article that had been latest in contact with the contents of the valise; a pair of gloves was handed him. He pressed them between his thin palms, and rolling them over and over again; then dropped them on the floor, and proceeded to turn himself slowly around, with arms outstretched and fingers expanded, as though he were seeking the direction in which the property lay. Suddenly, he stopped with a jerk, sank gradually to the floor and remained motionless, sitting cross-legged and with his arms still outstretched in the same direction, as though plunged in a cataleptic trance. This lasted for over an hour, which in that suffocating atmosphere, was to us one long torture. Suddenly the landlord sprang from his seat to the balustrade, and began instantly looking towards the river, in which direction our eyes also turned. Coming from whence, or how, we could not tell; but out there, over the water, and near its surface, was a dark object approaching. What it was we could not make out; but the mass seemed impelled by some interior force to revolve, at first slow, but then faster and faster as it drew near. It was as though supported on an invisible pavement, and its course was in a direct line as the bee flies. It reached the bank, disappeared again among the high vegetation, and anon, rebounding with force as it leaped over the low garden wall, flew rather than rolled on the verandah and dropped with a heavy thud under the extended palms of the gosa-in. A violent, convulsive tremor shook the frame of the old man, as with a deep sigh he opened his half-closed eyes. All were astounded, but the Frenchmen stared at the bundle with an expression of idiotic terror in their eyes! Rising from the ground the holy man opened the tarred canvas envelope and within were found all the stolen articles down to the least thing. Without a word, or waiting for thanks, he salaamed low to the company and disappeared through the doorway before we recovered from our surprise. We had to run after him a long way before we could press upon him a dozen rupees, which blessings he received in his wooden bowl.
This may appear a very surprising and incredible story to Europeans and Americans who have never been in India. But we have Dr. Carpenter’s authority for it, that even his “distinguished civilian” friends and “scientific officers,” who are as little likely to sniff out anything mystical there, with their aristocratic noses, as Dr. Carpenter to see it with his telescopic, microscopic, double-magnifying scientific eyes in England, have witnessed the mango “tree-trick,” which is still more wonderful. If the latter is “clever jugglery” the other—must be, too. Will the white-cravated and swallow-tailed gentlemen of Egyptian Hall please show the Royal Society how either is done?
H. P. Blavatsky.