Materialized Apparitions: If Not Beings From Another Life, What Are They?, by E A Brackett

Brackett 2cover

This is a slim book, published at Boston, Mass., in 1886.  In it Edward Augustus Brackett (1818-1908) addresses himself to the issue of the materialisation of spirits in the séance room, an element of the physical phenomena of Spiritualism.  Brackett by profession had been a sculptor and was a poet, but after the American Civil War had a second career in wildlife conservation.  In the book he describes how he became interested in Spiritualism through mesmerism, which he first encountered in 1840.  Initially sceptical about mesmerism, he found that clairvoyance and thought-transference could occur through its agency.  This led him to trance mediumship, which to begin with he thought was a form of mesmerism, and for a time, though sitting frequently with mediums, he was not convinced that the messages they conveyed emanated from the other side.  However, these experiences led him to investigate materialisation, which he defines as ‘the alleged production of visible and tangible apparitions [i.e. figures that exhibit personality] out of seeming nothingness’ (p.11) during a séance.

In this endeavour he claims that even though he brought scepticism to the task he became convinced by what he saw and heard.  The first half of the book is devoted to accounts of some of the séances with various mediums, notably Mrs H B Fay of Boston.  He met his deceased wife, and later his niece, Bertha, who became a regular visitor to the séances he attended (and with whom there appears, reading between the lines, to have been quite a charge).  His stance that ‘Materialization was either a great truth or a stupendous humbug’ (p.22) clarified as he weighed up and rejected the alternative explanations that the medium was either utilising confederates or was herself the supposedly materialised figures.

The use of confederates, bearing in mind how many discarnate figures typically appeared (up to 60), would not be practical because a medium employing conspirators would risk blackmail and exposure, and the project could not be economically viable; in any case, it would have been impossible to introduce assistants into Mrs Fay’s séance room without them being detected by the sitters, thanks to the layout.  Although he does not discuss the matter in detail, it seems that generally light levels, while low, were good enough to be able to see others in the room, though he is frustratingly vague about the matter of illumination.

The simultaneous appearance of medium and spirits to his mind ruled out the possibility that she was posing as them, and while at times the entities did bear a resemblance to the medium, often they did not.  In any case, a similarity might be expected if the medium was the source used by the spirits to be able to manifest; by the same token even a marked identity between a spirit and a deceased individual by itself did not guarantee that the two were the same personality.  Spirits’ features could in any case change, blending with the medium’s to various degrees.

In his investigations Brackett eschewed theorising on what he was witnessing: he says that ‘I could not launch out into the endless speculation of “psychical research;” I had not time for that …;’ (p.113); the Society for Psychical Research had been founded four years earlier and had already produced a substantial body of publications.  Instead he shed his reservations and found that as a result the forms, taking their cue from him, became sharper and possessed increased vitality.  The crucial role played by the attitudes of, and ‘moral atmosphere’ generated by, the sitters could not be overestimated.  He claimed that he had ‘seen hundreds and thousands of materialized forms’, as well as instances of trance mediumship (p.128), in more than a hundred séances.  While careful to note that in a strict sense he did not know what these forms were that materialised, in terms of the evidence there was no doubt in his mind about their origin.

In pursuing research, he distinguishes between public and domestic séances, seeing the former as necessary to educate large numbers of people, including sceptics, but the latter as preferable for obtaining the best results.  In a sense, though he does not use the terms, the first would be geared to proof, the second to process.  With the increase in understanding by sitters, he believes, low-grade mediums will find themselves without an audience.  Similarly, spirits will respond positively and will not be tempted to act in a mischievous manner.

He touches on what would now be referred to as ‘pseudo-scepticism’, that false scepticism which a priori decides that such things are nonsense.  These individuals he dismisses with the words: ‘To assume that these things are not honest … is to decide the question without evidence.’ (p.50)  By contrast he regards himself to be ‘naturally skeptical’ (p.112), having reached his conclusions on the basis of long experience (another naturally sceptical person might deem the controls imposed on the medium – a lack of internal physical examination, for example – relaxed enough to allow plenty of wiggle-room for fraud).  He also thinks that the amount of variability in séances held by an individual medium to be evidence of honesty, on the grounds that if fraud were being practised there would be more uniformity, a view which lacks appreciation of the range of methods that a dishonest medium might use.

The finding of clothing in the cabinet during ‘exposures’ he feels can be explained by the arrested process of dematerialisation; given sufficient opportunity these spirit garments would have completely disappeared.  Accusations of fraud have in many cases been ‘unreliable’ in his view, though he continues that it is incumbent on the medium to so arrange things that the possibility can be completely ruled out.  Distrust, he continues, is often generated by a lack of openness on the part of mediums, creating disharmony and leading to a lack of confidence in the medium.  In all, Brackett displays a touching faith in mediums’ honesty that strays into naivety.  His view is that a positive attitude strengthens the phenomena, but he does not consider how this allows his credulity to be used against him.

He is critical too of scientists, whom he attacks for their despotic dogmatism and rejection of anything beyond matter, their refusal to investigate materialization except on their own terms, rather than its.  To take that unscientific position is an expression of prejudice, denial without investigation, and in Brackett’s mind his testimony, based as it is on extensive and dispassionate first-hand investigation, is no less valid than theirs.  He also criticises those Spiritualists who, while accepting the evidence from trance mediumship, condemn materialisation: ‘In their conceit, the little they know is the whole world to them.’ (p.174)

Brackett was certainly a committed, if uncritical, investigator.  Alfred Russel Wallace in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, October 1888, refers to ‘A little book called Materialised Apparitions [sic], by Mr. E. Brackett’, and says that ‘I met Mr. Brackett in Boston, and can testify to the honesty, ability, and earnestness of the man and of his book.’ (p.314)  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a fan, and in his The History of Spiritualism (1926, vol. 2, p.101), refers to Materialized Apparitions as ‘that remarkable book’.  He quotes from it and continues on the following page: ‘If anyone should think from this passage that the author was a poor, credulous fool upon whom any fraudulent medium could easily impose, a perusal of his excellent book will quickly prove the contrary.’

Sadly contradicting Conan Doyle’s unambiguous verdict, Materialized Apparitions is frustratingly short on detail but brimming with assumptions of good faith.  While one might wonder how a medium could fraudulently orchestrate as many as 60 discarnate visitors during a single session without being caught, the chances that these were genuinely personalities of those who had died and returned seem somewhat smaller than that Mrs Fay and her fellow mediums were pulling the wool over poor Mr Brakcett’s eyes.

A note on editions:  Materialized Apparitions was originally published by Colby and Rich at Boston, Mass., in 1886.  A facsimile version (i.e. a comb-bound photocopy) was published by Health Research in California in 1975.  The book was well received and a second edition was produced by Richard G. Badger, also of Boston, in 1908, the year of Brackett’s death, though it was actually a straight reprint of the 1886 edition.  The text was translated into German by Bernhard Forsboom and Carl du Prel in 1889, reaching a third edition in 1922.

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