The Great Mystery: Abolitionists Heed the Rappings

Joseph Rodes Buchanan. “The Great Mystery,” Buchanan’s Journal of Man, April 1850: 562-568.

The Great Mystery

Is a mystery still! The mysterious knockings and spiritual dialogues which have been going on in New York still have hosts of believers and disbelievers, both of whom affirm that they have faithfully and conscientiously investigated the phenomena. Here, at a distance from the scene, we can only hear the parties who testify for and against, and await the slow progress of investigation. As intelligent men, it is our duty to look at both sides, and neither to believe every wonderful story from respectable sources, nor to adopt without reflection every hasty newspaper squib, denouncing it as a humbug or detected trick.

The most plausible explanation of the knockings, among the skeptics, is that they are produced by the toes of the impostors; but this, although it might suit many cases, would not explain those in which the sound was heard out of doors, or jarring objects at some distance from the parties. As to wonderful revelations from the spirits, the skeptics say that they are as often wrong as right, and that the rapping is no better than guesswork in all its manifestations. A respectable clergyman of Auburn [Universalist minister John Mather Austin] publishes in the [New York] Tribune a long account of his experiments in the way of questioning, from which it appears, that in his case the answers were all wrong, and that the spirits gave very lame excuses for their blunders when told they were wrong.

On the other hand, a subscriber of the Journal sends me the following extract from the letter of a friend at Auburn:

“These manifestations still continue, and still increase in interest and extent; although, by newspaper paragraphs, they are daily ‘found out,’ ‘exposed,’ ‘exploded,’ and all that. Brother, we know what we are doing: we are not groping in the dark. I have contested all the ground, inch by inch, and my skeptical organization has left no loop-hole unnoticed, no stone untouched, to find out whether there was any other way to account for these strange things. Let those cry ‘humbug’ who will; they are the deceived ones, not we who have proved the matter. Ten thousand questions will arise of the why of all these things; but time alone will settle that matter.” &c. &c.

Another subscriber of the Journal has published in a Cleveland Herald the following interesting narrative of his observations. The editor of the Herald expresses the utmost confidence in the writer, although he cannot accredit the phenomena.

“ROCHESTER RAPPINGS—Mr. Harris: As but little, if anything, has appeared in this community upon this subject, save articles of ridicule and denunciation, will you permit me to record for the benefit of honest and independent inquirers, and in fulfillment of a promise made to certain individuals residing in various localities, what I have seen and heard with my own eyes and ears, touching this remarkable phenomenon. And I can assure all such that my senses were in healthy action, that they were not beclouded with prejudice, pro or con, nor by any physiological or mental hallucination of any kind that could interfere with a fair and candid examination of the facts, as they really occurred.

“I devoted two days to the investigation, was privileged with several interviews, and witnessed the spiritual manifestations, as they are called, in three different forms, and that which I am about to relate is and has been an every-day occurrence for the last eighteen months, and in the presence of hundreds of different individuals, from every part of the country—I would further state that the rappings are witnessed in different places in Rochester, and in different towns in Western New York.

“Without expressing my own opinion upon the subject, I would state that these manifestations are deemed spiritual by the persons connected with them, and in speaking of them I shall use their language. They uniformly address them as spirits, or by the names by which they were called in this sphere of life.

“It is usual, upon the arrival of a stranger, to request him to be seated at the table around which are seated two or more of the family—the family consisting of the mother, Mrs. Fox, and her three daughters—when the question is asked—‘Will the spirit converse with this gentleman?’ If the answer is affirmative, there are one or more raps distinctly heard from the floor or table or other parts of the room. If in the negative, perfect silence. When yes or not will not convey the proper answer, there are raps, usually five, for the alphabet, in which case one of the party repeats the alphabet, A, B, C, D, &c., until you arrive at the letter commencing the first word of the communication or answer, when there is a rap, and so on until the sentence is spelled out. Thus: Upon my being seated at the table, an entire stranger to them all, the question was put by one of the ladies—‘Will the spirit converse with this gentleman?’ Answer by raps—‘Yes.’ I was then permitted to ask such questions as I chose. I asked—‘Have I guardian spirits present?’ Ans. ‘Yes.’ Ques. ‘How many?’ Ans. Raps for the alphabet, when was spelled out clearly and distinctly—‘Father, Mother, William.’—Ques. ‘At what age did William die?’—Ans.—the correct age. Ques. ‘Will you give my wife’s name?’ Ans.—raps for the alphabet, and ‘M-a-r-y-A-n-n’ was immediately spelled out. Some other questions were asked, and in all cases correct answers given. After which the alphabet was called, and ‘d-o-n-e’ was spelled, and I was informed that no further communication could be had at that time.

“Upon rising from the table, I expressed a strong desire for a test by causing the table to move, whereupon one of the ladies asked—‘Will not the spirit gratify the gentleman by causing the table to move?’ Very soon I discovered a tremulous motion in the table, and it was moved from one to two feet directly from me and against the girls, and pushing them off from their balance. I expressed myself satisfied for that time, and left.

“At a previous interview in another room, when there were present at the commencement of the conversation with the spirit, only one of the young ladies of the family, myself, and another gentleman and lady, as the two latter were leaving, the spirits were addressed by them, and answers by raps were heard on the doors, floor, and other parts of the room. Among the questions put and answered were the following: Ques. ‘Are you happy?’ Ans. ‘Yes.’ Ques. ‘Are all spirits happy?’ Ans.—raps for the alphabet, and the following sentence distinctly spelled out—‘All those are happy here who were happy there.’ They then said, ‘Good night spirits,’ and there was an immediate response by quick and successive rappings at different points upon the floor.

“At another time, when were present eight or ten individuals beside the [Fox] family, all of whom save three had had previous interviews, and as we were all seated around the table, some with paper and pencils taking notes, one of the family inquired, ‘Will the spirit now converse with us?’ Ans. ‘Yes.’ I inquired ‘Will they converse with me?’ Ans. ‘No.’ Another inquired, and a similar answer. Then a rap for the alphabet, when one of these three were called for, whereupon he asked ‘If there were any of his guardian spirits present?’ Ans. ‘Yes.’ Ques. ‘Who?’ Some were named, the same, as the gentleman informed the company, as were named in a similar manner at Auburn. He then made other inquiries, among which I recollect he asked them to tell him the state, county, and town, where he was born, all of which were correctly answered, as he informed us, and the alphabet was called and ‘done’ was spelled, and he could get no further response. The other two were permitted to ask questions, all of which were answered correctly, as they informed the company, and as each asked a reasonable number of questions, done was spelled to each. At the conclusion, done was spelled to the whole company, and no further answers could be obtained.

“At one of the interviews I asked if their rappings could be witnessed in Cleveland. Ans. ‘Yes.’ Ques. ‘When?’ Ans. ‘Soon.’ Ques. ‘How soon?’ Ans. ‘Very soon.’ Many other questions were asked, and in every instance correct answers were given. I also witnessed the rappings in answer to questions by two of the young ladies while standing out of doors, in the daytime, upon a brick pavement.

“As I have before remarked, similar facts have been witnessed daily, for the last eighteen months, by thousands of individuals from every portion of the country, and it would be as rational and consistent to deny the existence of such a place as Rochester, as to deny their reality; and it seems to me equally absurd and ridiculous to attribute them to the agency of those ladies in whose presence they are usually witnessed.

“They are utterly incompetent for such a work, and moreover their character and standing, as admitted by all who know them, forbid the thought that they would practice such a deception upon the community. If such is the fact, it is asked, whence come these intelligent rappings?—and, cui bono, and for what object do they exist? That’s the question to be solved, and our crying humbug, and denouncing as fools and fanatics, all such as believe the evidence of their senses, and are independent enough to acknowledge it, will never disprove their existence, or disclose their origin.

They claim them to be communications from the next sphere or spiritual world, and to prove these claims they offer the testimony of divers individuals of high character and standing, that they have received communications which were known only to such deceased friends and themselves. They urge, too, the character of the teachings which are received as being pure and holy, and such as are really calculated to benefit and bless mankind. Moreover that such communications are nothing novel, but have been witnessed in all ages of the world. But it is objected that these rappings and movings of tables, &c., are undignified and ill suited to the character of spirits. To which they reply that it is not for them to prescribe modes of operation, or the manner in which they shall arrest the public attention. That if they are spirits, it is presumed that they know best how to work, and that we ought to sit as listeners and learners, rather than as teachers and fault-finders. That the tree will be known by its fruits, and that time will determine its character. That, moreover, their operations are not more undignified and childish than many of the communications recorded in the Bible, as direct from God himself—viz: Judges, VII—6, XII—6. That by such a variety of tests all classes of mind and all the senses are addressed and thus the sooner the world will listen to the teachings from the spiritual world.

“I therefore would recommend to all such as cannot or dare not believe the testimony of others, and will believe what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears, to go and witness this most singular phenomenon. Such as wish more testimony, and the history of the affair from the beginning, will be accommodated by purchasing a small pamphlet just published by Mr. [Dellon Marcus] Dewey, of Rochester, for sale at Pearson’s.


CLEVELAND, March 18, 1850.”

 The pamphlet of Mr. Dewey above mentioned, is thus alluded to by the N. Y. Tribune:

“We copy from this pamphlet the following statement from observation by Rev. C. Hammond, of Rochester, which seems worth looking into. Mr. Hammond had been once to the house where these manifestations are mainly made, heard nothing extraordinary, beyond the mere fact of the ‘Rappings,’ and went away as skeptical as he came, but returned afterward with the following result:

“‘During the interval, I had prepared my mind with certain questions, touching events unknown to the family, and of a remote date. The sounds told me my age precisely, though my appearance is such as to indicate a difference of eight or ten years. The names of six of my nearest deceased relatives were given me. I then inquired, ‘Will the spirit, who now makes these sounds, give me its name?’ Five sounds directed me to the alphabet, which I repeated until the name of ‘Charles’ appeared, which answered to an infant child whom we consigned to the grave in March, 1843. To my inquiries, it gave me a true answer in regard to the time it had been in the spirit-land, and also the period since my eldest sister’s death, which was nearly eighteen years; the latter fact not being recollected then, I found true by dates on my return home.—Many other test questions were correctly answered; and yet, notwithstanding the origin of these sounds seemed inexplicable, I was inclined to impute them to mesmerism or clairvoyance. However, as the spirit promised to satisfy me by other demonstrations, when I came again, I patiently awaited the opportunity.

“‘On the third visit, I was selected from a half dozen gentlemen, and directed by these sounds to retire to another room, in company with the ‘three sisters’ and their aged mother. It was about eight o’clock in the evening. A lighted candle was placed on a large table, the mother and the youngest daughter the right, and two of the sisters the left, leaving the opposite side of the table vacant. On taking our positions the sounds were heard, and continued to multiply and become more violent until every part of the room trembled with their demonstrations. They were unlike any I had heard before. Suddenly, as we were all resting on the table, I felt the side next to me move upward. I pressed upon it heavily, but soon it passed out of the reach of us all, full six feet from me, and at least four from the nearest person to it. I saw distinctly its position; not a thread could have connected it with any of the company without my notice, for I had come to detect imposition, if it could be found. In this position we were situated, when the question was asked, ‘Will the spirit move the table back where it was before?’—and back it came, as though it were carried on the head of some one, who had not suited his position to a perfect equipoise, the balance being sometimes in favor of one side and then the other. But it regained its first position. In the meantime the ‘demonstrations’ grew louder and louder. The family commenced and sun the ‘spirit’s song,’ and several other pieces of sacred music, during which accurate time was marked on the table, causing it to vibrate; a transparent hand, resembling a shadow, presented itself before my face; I felt fingers taking hold of a lock of hair on the left side of my head, causing an inclination of several inches; then a cold, death-like hand was drawn designedly over my face; three gentle raps on my left knee; my right limb forcibly pulled, against strong resistance, under the table; a violent shaking, as though two hands were applied to my shoulders; myself and chair uplifted and moved back a few inches; and several slaps, as with a hand, on the side of my head, which were repeated on each one of the company, more rapid than I could count. During these manifestations, a piece of pasteboard, nearly a foot square, was swung with such velocity before us as to throw a strong current of air in our faces; a paper curtain attached to one of the windows was rolled up and unrolled twice; a lounge immediately behind me was shaken violently; two small drawers in a bureau played back and forth with inconceivable rapidity; a sound resembling a man sawing boards, and planing them, was heard under the table; a common spinning-wheel seemed to be in motion, making a very natural buzz of the spindle; a reel articulated each knot wound upon it; while the sound of a rocking cradle indicated maternal care for the infant’s slumbers. These were among many other demonstrations which I witnessed that evening, amid which I felt a perfect self-possession, and in no instance the slightest embarrassment, except a momentary chill when the cold hand was applied to my face, similar to a sensation I have realized when touching a dead body. That any of the company could have performed these things, under the circumstances in which we were situated, would require a greater stretch of credulity on my part, than it would be to believe it was the work of spirits. It could not, by any possibility, have been done by them, nor even attempted, without detection. And I may add that near the close of the demonstrations at this visit, there was a vibration of the floor as though several tons in weight had been uplifted and suddenly fallen again upon it. This caused everything in the room to shake most violently for several minutes, when the force was withdrawn.

“‘I have also tested the intelligence of these spirits in every way my ingenuity could invent. On one occasion I wrote a word on a slip of paper privately, placed it in my wallet, went there, and the sounds through the alphabet, spelled that word correctly as I had written it. That word was [my wife's name] ‘Sibyl.’

“‘On the 20th February inst., the two youngest sisters made my family a visit. Here the sounds were heard—questions involving subjects wholly unknown to them were answered—a large heavy dining table was moved several times—and on expressing thanks at the table to the Giver of all good, some six or eight sounds responded to every sentence I uttered, by making loud and distinct sounds in various parts of the room.

“‘Yours, truly, C. HAMMOND.

“‘Rochester, Feb. 22, 1850.’”

 The above statement of physical manifestations is corroborated by the pamphlet of Barron and Capron [Explanation and history of the mysterious communion with spirits: comprehending the rise and progress of the mysterious noises in western New York, generally received as spiritual communications; by Eliab Wilkinson Capron and Henry D. Barron. Auburn: Capron and Barron, 1850]. There are, doubtless many, who consider all such statements a sufficient proof of imposture; but it must be borne in mind, that my own psychometric and cerebral experiments were considered, a few years ago, quite as marvelous and supernatural as these. Those who have become acquainted with clairvoyance and other wonderful phenomena of mesmerism, and who know how often valuable truths are set down as utterly incredible, because marvelous, should not condemn anything whatever or form any decided opinion upon matters of fact without a patient investigation of the evidence. If this whole matter should prove a delusion, it will still be no less instructive in showing us better how to guard against deception hereafter. If it prove to have merely a few grains of truth, we shall be well repaid for our investigation; but if it should all prove substantially true, will it not be the dawning of a brilliant era?

All I contend for in this matter is, a proper spirit of philosophic patience and impartiality in making investigation and awaiting the progress of truth. All will be clear in time.

There are many whose impatience or disgust will not allow them to give any attention to such matters as these. But he who is not willing to examine anything, however improbable, cannot be a successful disciple of Nature. The hunter in pursuit of game does not withold his eye from scrutinizing every foot-print or trace of its passage, however improbable it may be that the game is near at hand. So the philosopher, in the pursuit of new truths, should never fail to scrutinize everything which even professes to contain aught of truth—and culpable, indeed, would he be, if from animal passion, from contempt, impatience, or disgust he should refuse to examine anything in which conscientious and careful observers believe that they have found a valuable truth.

[The pamphlet of Mr. Dewey may be obtained from Stratton & Barnard, of Cincinnati, at the price of ten cents. Its title is as follows: “History of the Strange Sounds or Rappings heard in Rochester and Western New York, and usually called THE MYSTERIOUS NOISES, which are supposed by many to be communications from the Spirit World; together with all the explanation that can as yet be given of the matter. Rochester. D. M. Dewey. 1850.” Containing 79 pages.]


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