Theosophist, February, 1881
[Note: the following introductory remark was made in The Theosophist, January, 1881:]
Our long absence from Bombay has prevented our reviewing Mr. C. C. Massey’s excellent translation of Professor Zöllner’s great work, Transcendental Physics, in which are described his experiments with Dr. Slade, the American medium. Dr. Zöllner’s contribution to the science of spiritualistic phenomena is one of the most valuable that has ever appeared. Next month it will be properly noticed; as will also Dr. George Wyld’s smaller work on the higher aspects of Theosophy and Spiritualism.
As was remarked last month, the now world-known work of Professor Zöllner, on his experimental inquiry into the theory of a fourth dimension of space, with the aid of Dr. Henry Slade, the American spiritual medium, is one of the most valuable that have ever appeared in connection with the mediumistic phenomena. Modern spiritualism has spawned almost as many books as a female herring does eggs; and out of the number all but a few might as well have never appeared. But now and again the enquiry into this subject has begotten some work that is a permanent contribution to the progress of science. And Professor Zöllner’s is of that class. It is the record of a series of sittings, or séances, with one of the most strangely endowed “psychics” of our times. Slade is a man who seems to be surrounded with an aura, or magnetic atmosphere, capable of so saturating the objects about him as to make them subject to disintegration and reintegration at the caprice of some intelligent power which hears, consents, wills, and executes. He fancies it is the hovering soul of his deceased wife which, however, is believed to yield its place momentarily to other “spirits” to write their own messages to their own (surviving) friends, in their own languages—languages which neither Slade nor she ever knew. Most mediums have some one or two forms of phenomena peculiar to themselves. Thus, William Eddy produces walking, and sometimes talking, figures of dead people; Mesdames Thayer, of America, and Guppy-Volckmann, of England, have showers of flowers; the Davenports showed detached hands from their cabinet window, and musical instruments flying through the air; Foster has names in blood-writing ooze up under the skin of his arm, and picks the same names out of a lot of written ballots strewn on the table; and so on. Slade’s chief specialty is to get automatic writing upon slates under perfect test conditions; but he is also, sometimes, clairvoyant, has vaporous figures appear in the room, and under Professor Zöllner’s observation, he produced a series of novel and astounding phenomena illustrating the passage of matter through matter. This Leipzig savant, it must be noted, is one of the most eminent among astronomers and physicists. He is also a profound metaphysician, the friend and compeer of the brightest contemporary intellects of Germany. He had long surmised that besides length, breadth, and thickness, there might be a fourth dimension of space, and that if this were so then that would imply another world of being, distinct from our three-dimensional world, with its own inhabitants fitted to its four dimensional laws and conditions, as we are to ours of three dimensions. He was not the originator of this theory; Kant, and, later Gauss, the metaphysical geometer, had forecast its conceptibility. But, the experimental demonstration lacking, it remained as a mere intellectual speculation until Zöllner was enabled to solve the problem, and to convince his great colleagues Weber, Fechner, and Scheiber. The publication of these experiments has created an intense interest throughout the world of science, and the discussion between the parties of progressive and conservative thinkers is actively and even angrily proceeding. Our space does not permit a very exhaustive review of Prof. Zöllner’s book, and as it should be in the library of everyone who pretends to hold intelligent opinions upon the subjects of Force, Matter, and Spirit, the reader must be left to seek in its pages the major part of its wonderful contents.
Briefly, then, the facts are these: Zöllner started with the proposition that, granting, for argument’s sake, the existence of a world of four dimensions with four-dimensional inhabitants, these latter ought to be able to perform the simple experiment of tying hard knots in an endless cord. For the fourth dimension of space—or, shall we say, the fourth property of matter—must be permeability. So, when he knew that the medium Slade was coming to Leipzig he took a cord, tied the two ends together, and sealed them with wax which he stamped with his own signet. Slade came and the Professor sat with him at a table, in broad daylight, their four hands laid upon the table, Slade’s feet in sight, and the endless cord, with the sealed end lying on the table under the Professor’s thumbs, and the loop hanging down and resting upon his lap. It was the first time Slade had heard of that kind of an experiment, and no one had tried it with any medium. In a few seconds the Professor felt a slight motion of the cord—which no one was touching—and upon looking, found to his surprise and joy that his wish had been gratified. Only, instead of one knot, four had been tied in his string. To a scientific mind like his, this result, though infinitely less sensational than hundreds of mediumistic phenomena, was as conclusive and important a proof of the theory of four dimensions, as was the falling of a single apple to Newton in corroborating his immortal theory of gravity. Here was clearly an instance of the passage of matter through matter, in short, the cornerstone of a whole system of cosmic philosophy. This experiment he frequently, and in the presence of several witnesses, had repeated. As a further test he bethought him of having turned two rings out of solid pieces of wood of different species—one of oak, the other of alder wood—which he strung on a cord of catgut. He also put on the string an endless band, which he had cut from a bladder. He then sealed the ends of his cord as in the previous experiment, and as before, held the seal on the table under his two thumbs, letting the loop with the two wooden rings and the endless band or ring of bladder, hang down between his knees. Slade and he sat—again in full daylight—at two sides of the table, with all their hands in view, and the medium’s feet where the Professor could see them. Just near the farther end of the table stood a small, round-topped stand, or teapoy, with one stout pillar to which the top was permanently attached, and three branching feet. After a few minutes had elapsed a rattling sound was heard at the small stand, as of wood knocking against wood, and this sound was thrice repeated. They left their seats and looked around; the wooden rings had disappeared from the endless catgut cord; the cord itself was found tied in two loose knots, through which the endless bladder band was hanging uninjured. The two solid wooden rings were—where? Encircling the pillar of the small stand, without the slightest solution of the continuity of their fibres or those of the pillar! Here was a permanent, most undeniable proof that matter could be passed through matter; in short, to the vulgar a “miracle.”
Numerous other like phenomena were obtained during the thirty sittings which Professor Zöllner had with Slade. Among them the abstraction of coins from a hermetically-sealed box, and their passage through the table onto a slate held flat against the under side of the table-top; while simultaneously two fragments of slate pencil laid on the slate at the commencement of the experiment, were at the close found to have passed into the sealed box. Again, two separate endless bands of leather laid loosely under the hands of Professor Zöllner on the table, were under his very hands made to interlock, one with the other, without the breaking of the seals or any injury to the fibre of the material. A work, taken from the library shelf and laid upon a slate which Slade held partly under the edge of the table, disappeared, and after the sitters had vainly searched for it for the space of five minutes all over the room, and then reseated themselves at the table, it presently fell straight from the ceiling of the room onto the table with violence. The room was light, the séance was at eight in the morning, and the book fell from the direction opposite to that in which Slade was sitting; so no human hand could have thrown it. The small table, or stand previously referred to, on one occasion, no one touching it, began to slowly oscillate. What further happened we will let Dr. Zöllner himself describe:––
“The motions very soon became greater, and the whole table approaching the card-table laid itself under the latter, with its three feet turned towards me. Neither I nor, as it seemed, Mr. Slade, knew how the phenomenon would further develop,1 since during the space of a minute which now elapsed nothing whatever occurred. Slade was about to take slate and pencil to ask his “spirits” whether we had anything still to expect, when I wished to take a nearer view of the position of the round table lying, as I supposed, under the card-table. To my and Slade’s great astonishment we found the space beneath the card-table completely empty, nor were we able to find in all the rest of the room that table which only a minute before was present to our senses. In the expectation of its reappearance we sat again at the card-table, Slade close to me, at the same angle of the table opposite that near which the round table had stood before. We might have sat about five or six minutes in intense expectation of what should come, when suddenly Slade again asserted that he saw lights in the air. Although I, as usual, could perceive nothing whatever of the kind, I yet followed involuntarily with my gaze the directions to which Slade turned his head, during all which time our hands remained constantly on the table, linked together (über-einander liegend); under the table, my left leg was almost continually touching Slade’s right in its whole extent, which was quite without design, and owing to our proximity at the same corner of the table. Looking up in the air, eagerly and astonished, in different directions, Slade asked me if I did not perceive the great lights. I answered decidedly in the negative; but as I turned my head, following Slade’s gaze up to the ceiling of the room behind my back, I suddenly observed, at a height of about five feet, the hitherto invisible table with its legs turned upwards, very quickly floating down in the air upon the top of the card-table. Although we involuntarily drew back our heads sideways, Slade to the left and I to the right, to avoid injury from the falling table, yet we were both, before the round table had laid itself down on the top of the card-table, so violently struck on the side of the head, that I felt the pain on the left of mine fully four hours after this occurrence, which took place at about half-past eleven.”
The English-reading public is under many obligations to Mr. Massey for his translation and synopsis of the German edition of Dr. Zöllner’s work. His self-imposed and entirely disinterested (he reaps no pecuniary profit from it) task was the more difficult inasmuch as he was almost entirely self-taught in German, and his satisfactory rendering of his author is all the more to be admired. In a preface of some forty pages, Mr. Massey introduces us to the several personages concerned in the ever-memorable Leipzig experiments, and shows their evident good faith and credibility; while in an appendix of twenty more, he handles with able lucidity the question of the two sides of the proposition that evidence, to command assent, should be proportioned to the probability or improbability of the fact to be proved.
It will interest our readers, and perhaps the public, to learn the circumstances which led to Mr. Slade’s visit to Europe in 1877, from which such startling results have happened. In the Winter of 1876-7 the professors at the Imperial University of St. Petersburg, Russia, determined—under the pressure of very august authority—to form a committee for the scientific investigation of the mediumistic phenomena. The Hon. Alexandre Aksakoff, Russian Imperial Councillor, and now an officer of the Theosophical Society, having long studied the subject, was invited to lend his help. He, therefore, asked Colonel Olcott and the Conductor of this Magazine, both then in America, to select out of the best American mediums one whom they could recommend to the Committee. A careful search was accordingly made and Mr. Slade fixed upon for the following reasons: (1) His phenomena all occurred in full light; (2) They were of a character to convince scientific men of the real presence of a force and the absence of charlatanry and sleight-of-hand; (3) Slade was willing to be placed under any reasonable test conditions and assist in trying scientific experiments—the importance of which he was intelligent enough to appreciate. So, after he had submitted himself for three months to an enquiry by a Special Committee of our fellows, expressly chosen by President Olcott, out of the skeptics in our Society; and the Committee had favourably reported, Mr. Aksakoff was recommended to engage him. In due time the choice was ratified, the necessary money to pay Slade’s passage was sent to us, and the medium sailed from New York for Russia, via England. His subsequent adventures, including his arrest and trial at London upon a malicious charge of attempted fraud, release, and triumphant vindication of his psychic powers at Leipzig and other European capitals,—are all well known. It is not too much to say that in this one case the agency of the Theosophical Society was productive of an effect upon the relations of exact science with psychological research, the importance of which must be felt for long years to come. Not only was Slade originally chosen by Theosophists for the European experiment and sent abroad, but at his London trial he was defended by a Theosophist barrister, Mr. Massey; at St. Petersburg another Theosophist, Mr. Aksakoff, had him in charge; and now Mr. Massey has bequeathed to future generations of English readers the full story of his wondrous psychical gifts.
1. The movement of heavy objects without any possible contact by Slade was so common that we looked on the movement of the table as only the beginning of a further succession of phenomena.