Jeremiah Gurney and the Spirit-Artists

Benjamin Coleman, “Spiritualism in America—IV,” Spiritual Magazine (London), October 1861: 433-439.

The readers of the Spiritual Magazine were made aware some few months ago of an entirely new and very remarkable development of spirit power through the mediumship of Mrs. French, which was then exciting great attention in New York.  [William Howett, “The Mystic Crayon Drawings. A New Phase of Mediumship,” Spiritual Magazine, April 1861: 173-180.]  It was stated on the authority of Dr. [John Franklin] Gray, Dr. [Robert Titus] Hallock, and several other well-known and intelligent spiritualists that elaborate pencil drawings had been done in their presence by the spirits in the inconceivably short space of a few seconds.  Before leaving for America my friends requested especially that I should try to see and report upon this new phenomenon; I accordingly took the earliest opportunity after my arrival in New York of making the acquaintance of Mrs. French; she resides together with her daughter at the house of Mr. T[homas] Culbertson, No. 8, 4th Avenue, who is a serious, respectable, and very intelligent man—one upon whose word without enquiry I should be disposed at once to rely.  Mr. Culbertson took some trouble to explain to me Mrs. French’s history, and more particularly the incidents attendant on this new development of INSTANTANEOUS SPIRIT DRAWING PRODUCED WITHOUT THE AID OF HUMAN AGENCY.  Mrs. French it appears has from her childhood had peculiar gifts, and several extraordinary stories are told of her power of second sight at a very early age, and since the first advent of the “Modern Spiritual Manifestations” she has been prominent as a trance-speaking medium and medical clairvoyant, and she now practises as a “physician,” which title with her name is inscribed on her door-plate.  The new development is entirely apart from her professional avocations, and is only exhibited occasionally, being without her control, inasmuch as the spirits entrance her first, and then make their own arrangements for a séance.  The circumstances immediately preceding and attendant on this new and most extraordinary phase of Mrs. French’s mediumship were thus described to me by Mr. Culbertson.

On the 15th of February, 1860, Mrs. French left her house at two p.m., and returned at five.  It had been snowing furiously all the day, and the side walks and streets were almost impassable from the melted snow and deep mud.  She said she had been to visit Mrs. Melins, a lady friend of hers residing at Brooklyn, which, as my readers no doubt know, is a town lying on the opposite bank of the river to New York.  Whilst there she said she had been entranced, and the spirits had made to Mrs. Melins some indefinite prediction of coming events, which they said, if realized, would be the greatest possible proof of spirit-power.  Mrs. French spoke of other communications which had transpired at Mrs. Melins’, and added that she did not leave her house until 35 minutes past four, that she had no recollection how she got to Brooklyn nor back again, nor of anything on the way until she found herself in the street cars opposite her own door.  Mr. Culbertson and her family listened to her statement in doubt and astonishment, and concluded that there must be some delusion, that she had concealed herself in a trance, and had never left the house, since there was no appearance whatever in her dress to indicate that she had been in the streets.  She had on thin shoes, they were not in the least soiled, and her stockings were not even damp, and the time occupied in coming from Brooklyn, according to her statement, was at least half an hour less than the journey could be done in under ordinary circumstances.

Whilst they were cross-questioning her she became entranced, and a spirit speaking through her said—“You need not doubt her, all she has said is true; Mrs. Melins will confirm it.  Mrs. French did not ride from the ferry at Brooklyn to Mrs. Melins’ house, nor back again to the boat, nor did she ride on this side to or from the cars, and she did come home in the time she has stated.”  Mr. Culbertson and Mrs. French’s daughters were very much puzzled and surprised at this statement, and asked—“How is it if she did not ride that her shoes and feet are not wet, and her dress unsoiled?  She could not possibly step even across the side walk without wetting her feet in the present slushy state of the streets.”  The spirit answered—“She was in our hands—sustained by our influence; she could not, as you say, have walked, and did not, she was carried along with a rapid gliding motion seemingly walking, but not actually so, and never stepping into the mud.”  Mr. Culbertson was disinclined to receive this explanation, but looking at all the facts it was inevitably so, since it was quite impossible that she could have passed to Brooklyn and back under ordinary circumstances.  He then asked if they had carried her across the river, they said “No, the electrical emanations of the earth and water differ, besides there was no necessity for incurring unnecessary risks nor for attracting attention which we especially wished to avoid, very few persons saw her, as very few were out in such a day in the streets at Brooklyn.”  In the evening of the same day Mrs. French went out to pay a professional visit, and though she had gone fully prepared with thick boots, she returned home with wet feet, and all the appearance of having had to tramp as other people through the thick mud of the streets.

On the following day she went out again in a mysterious way; was absent four hours, and could give no account of herself, but she brought home with her some drawing paper, pencils, and rubber, though no one knew with what object.  In the evening she sent for Mrs. Melins to come to her immediately, and though all this was very strange, her daughters humoured her, waiting to see what would come of it.  On Mrs. Melins’ arrival she fully corroborated Mrs. French’s statements of her visit on the previous day—and they all, including several friends, accompanied her to the drawing-room, where, selecting a small table, she placed it in the centre of the room, and invited them to be seated.  She then commenced, in a state of trance, to manipulate the drawing paper in a very elaborate way, using wine and acids as a preparation, and in thirty minutes the first of a series of spirit pencil drawings was produced, and thus the mysterious promise made to Mrs. Melins was realised.  Several other drawings were done at the time in like manner, the subjects being suggested by one or other of the party, and the whole proceeding, though witnessed only by those accustomed to spiritual manifestations created the greatest interest and excitement.

Up to the period of my visit many séances had been held at intervals.  The sittings were not of a public character, nor did Mrs. French make the exhibition a money question, all who came were invited; and thus, even the most feeble of all objectors have no foot-hold in this case—I mean that class of persons who if asked to compensate professional mediums for loss of time, make sure at once that imposition lies at the bottom though their sagacity fails to discover it.  Among these visitors, the one most constant in his attendance, as I found by his name being attached to the list of those who certified to the conditions, and time of producing the drawings, was Mr. J[eremiah] Gurney, who is an artist of celebrity, and the leading photographer of New York; and as this gentleman attended the two sittings I had with Mrs. French, and was in quiet conversation with her on the only other two casual visits I made to the house, I inferred, but have no other reason for saying so, that he made a practice of consulting the invisibles, and whilst others were smiling at his “silly credulity,” he was very possibly getting useful, and practical hints, and accumulating a fund of knowledge, which has already placed him, though but a young man, at the head of his profession.  My stay in New York being limited, I begged Mr. Culbertson to arrange a sitting for me either on Friday or Saturday.  Mrs. French, being consulted, said she was engaged professionally on Friday, and she had promised to take her family to the theatre on Saturday evening, it must, therefore, be one evening in the following week, and as she entirely deferred to the dictate of the spirits, she would be told by them, and would then send to inform me of the day.  I continued my conversation with Mr. Culbertson, who was showing me a number of the earliest drawings, and explaining the circumstance under which they were obtained, when Mrs. French, entranced, again entered the room, and advancing to me, said, “My name is Jemmy—I have not the pleasure, sir, of knowing you, but you are very well known in the spirit world; and hearing you express a desire to see our drawings, I am sent to say we shall be glad to see you at eight o’clock on Saturday evening.  We cannot promise much, but we will do the best we can—good day, sir;” and with a formal bow she retired.  Mr. Culbertson said the engagement was binding on her, and would supersede the intended visit to the theatre, and as the result enables me to record one of the most wonderful facts developed in Spiritualism, and witnessed by myself, my readers will no doubt think the change of purpose an advantage.

On the evening fixed I went, accompanied by Judge [John Worth] Edmonds, who had not seen this new phase of spirit power, and our party numbered about twelve, including a lady, who was the mother of the spirit Jemmy, and he, I found, was the principal artist in the production of these spirit-drawings.  As soon as we were assembled, Mrs. French became entranced, and with great formality invited each to take a particular seat, reserving the post of honour next to herself for me, where I could best see the exact mode in which the whole séance was conducted.  A very small drawing-room table was placed in the centre of the circle, and not within three feet of any of us.  A shawl was then tied round the lower part of the legs of the table to form a dark chamber.  Under this was placed a thin board to make a firm surface, on which to spread the drawing paper, two saucers of water-colours and brushes, a bundle of coloured crayons, some drawing pencils, and a glass of water.  A number of fresh sheets of drawing paper were then handed to the medium, which she gave us to examine, and then she cut them into exact squares.  Rolling them up in the shape of a tube, she commenced breathing through them, exercising an effort which lasted five minutes, and which appeared to exhaust her, this singular process she explained was to give the necessary moisture to the surface of the paper, and superseded the use of wine and acids as at first used by her for damping it.  She then handed the roll to me requesting that I would place it under the covered part of the table, whilst she at the same time went on her knees, and placed her hands under the cover, spread the sheets out flat, and returned to her seat by my side.  All these arrangements being made with the gas burning, she then requested the light to be lowered, which was done, though it was still light enough for us to see each other, and even the hands of our watches.  Thus seated in perfect quiet, after a brief interval the medium cried “time;” when presently we heard a rapid scraping and scrubbing on the card board, as if many hands were at work with the quickness of steam power, and “time” being again called, the pencils were heard to drop suddenly and simultaneously from the hands as it were of the invisible artists.

The same process and arrangements being repeated, four elaborate and beautifully executed pictures of birds and flowers were produced in succession, the first being a pencil drawing, and the others in colours; and the time occupied was, respectively, eight, eleven, twelve, and fifteen seconds.  I am aware how difficult it is to realise such a statement, that finished drawings should be executed in such a way and in such an inconceivably short space of time; but all that I can say, is—that I have faithfully recorded the facts.  There was, I can assure the reader, an absence of everything like conjuring arrangements.  Mrs. French never left our sight.  I saw the white surface of the cardboard immediately before the operations commenced, and the most striking and convincing fact, to those present, of the work having been done on the instant, was that the coloured drawings were wet when taken up, and that they took some minutes to dry after they were in our hands, and at the close of the sitting I removed, at Mrs. French’s request, the shawl which was tied round the legs of the table.  No one present suspected imposture, and indeed, under the circumstances, it would have been foolish and unjust to do so.  The scene and results are not imaginary, as some wise people might suggest, for I have the four drawings in my possession, endorsed with the names of several gentlemen who were present, including Judge Edmonds and Mr. J. Gurney, the artist.  When the fourth drawing was completed, the medium, addressing me, and still speaking in the trance state, said—“That is all we purpose doing this evening.  I am sorry, sir, we could not manage to put a Bible chapter into one of them, as you wished; we meant to place it in the centre of the wreath; we will however do it for you another day.”

I then asked—How many spirits were engaged in the work this evening?

A.—There were eleven of us to-night; we go on adding one or two to our numbers whenever we can find suitable ones to aid us.

Q.—You appear to have less ceremony in preparing for the drawings now than you had at first?

A.—Yes, that is because we did not know at first what we could do or what conditions were absolutely required, so we had to go on trying our own powers as well as the force of the medium.

Q.—Don’t you think you could produce these drawings without the aid of any of our materials, except the cardboard?

A.—No, sir; we don’t expect to do that, we never heard of such a thing as that being done.

Q.—Yes; there is a medium in France, who receives communications in writing in various colours, without any pen or ink being at hand.  You will, perhaps, consult your friends and tell them this, and see whether, as you go on, you cannot produce the drawings without paints or pencils, which might be called spiritual photography.

A.—Well, sir, I will tell them what you say, but I don’t think we shall ever do that.  Good night!

I was preparing to take my departure from New York, and had given up all expectation of seeing anything more of this remarkable phase of spiritual manifestations, when I received, two days before leaving, the following note—

“Dear sir—Our spirit friends have appointed a drawing circle for this evening.  Mrs. French says it is principally on your account.  I hope, therefore, it will be convenient for you to come.

“Very respectfully yours,
“Thos. Culbertson.”

 I at once put aside all other engagements, glad to avail myself of a second opportunity of testing the reality and integrity of these marvellous productions with the advantage of previous observation and reflection on all the conditions and circumstances of the first sitting.  Dr. Hallock, Mr. Gurney and Professor [Darius] Lyman were of the party.  The arrangements were made much as I have before described them, except that there was even less formality and preparation than before, and the medium instead of breathing through the roll of paper, tied a damp towel round it, to give to the sheets the necessary moisture.  I was, as on the former occasion, invited to take my seat by the side of the medium at the best point for seeing the entire operations.  The small table stood in the centre of a large circle, comprised of about an equal number of both sexes.  When “time” was called there was the same rubbing and scrubbing helter-skelter sort of haste to do something in the shortest time possible, and when “time” was gain called we heard as before the pencils drop suddenly from the hands of the invisibles.  Six drawings were produced on this occasion in rapid succession, each occupying but a few seconds.  The first one was presented to me, and I was gratified to find that the spirits had not forgotten their promise.  They had drawn a beautifully executed bouquet with a hand rising from the centre holding an open Bible, with a part of the 14th chapter of John, 200 words most minutely but legibly written in pencil, and the time occupied in its production compete as I have described it was just eleven seconds.

Biography of Jeremiah Gurney (at the Daguerreian Society)


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