The Strange Peasant, Invisible Authors, and Spiritual Music

By on Sep 13, 2011 in Essays

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Strange Peasant graphic

Eusapia Palladino during a seance

Of this quartet of seances the New York Times said:

Eusapia finds trickery more easy than the exercise of her supernatural powers . . . she constantly resorts to it . [when the conditions of] the sitters permits it. [and when restrictions were imposed] none of the so-called evidential phenomena took place. [10]

On the other hand, astonishingly, one of the greatest stage illusionists, Howard Thurston, attended a spiritualistic session of the Italian peasant and wrote: “I am convinced that the table levitated without fraudulent use of her hands, feet, knees or any part of her body, or by any mechanical contrivance.” According to Milbourne Christopher, he offered a thousand dollars [11] — at a time when that was a considerable amount of money — for anyone who could prove she cheated to achieve her effects.

She was challenged by investigator Joseph Rinn on several levels of restraint and, although initially agreeing to the conditions, did not appear for the séance, and she ignored his offer of two thousand dollars if she could elevate a pencil from a table a couple of inches without coming in contact with it.

After six months of rapidly declining reputation, she left the United States and returned to Europe. There, previously credulous sitters recognized the manner in which she was able to create her programs, and she became inconsequential, dying on May 16, 1918 at sixty-four years.

One of Christopher’s concluding remarks is that “the magicians I have known who attended her seances… said she was an excellent showman, but [that] they saw no evidence of psychic force.” [12]   This author does not know if he knew Howard Thurston [13].

The quasi-medium, as noted previously, is of a somewhat different order from the operators just described, although the fundamental purpose of his/her activity is much the same, i.e. communication by the living with those who have died.  These individuals assume, or are endowed with, different techniques for achieving their ends. Probably the most common of this uncommon specialization is the exponent of automatic writing. This is a process whereby the practitioner is seated, with a blank piece of paper before him, and takes pen or pencil in hand. In some cases the medium graduates into a trance state; in others he functions while completely conscious. Whichever his mode, the productive episode has a communicating entity, the spirit of one gone on before, assume control of the subject’s hand, propelling it to form words and sentences into messages. There have been a number of cases where entire books have been thus composed; in a few instances the amanuenses have generated several volumes from (usually) a single attributed source.

Among the more famous and certainly most prolific of such cases was that of Patience Worth (the name of the ghost writer), who, although born in England in 1649, later coming to America where she was murdered by renegade Indians, did not begin her literary career until more than two hundred years following her gruesome demise. On July 8, 1913, she introduced herself to Mrs. Pearl Leonore Curran of St. Louis while the matron was spending an evening at the ouija board with a friend. The entity engaged Curran to transcribe her literary efforts, but it was soon evident that converting the systematic wanderings of the planchette [14] was going to be an extremely laborious task. Fortunately, the amanuensis soon discovered that Patience could speak through her, Mrs. Curran’s, voice, and it could be taken down by another or typed by her as the wraith dictated her poems and novels. This activity produced a half-dozen volumes, some reasonably well received by critics. Unfortunately, scholars who parsed and linguistically analyzed the works came to the definite conclusion that, despite Worth’s contended birth year, the writing was essentially of the place and time in which Mrs. Curran lived and, with the introduction of her pen pal, flourished. It was a wonderful tale, but there seems little doubt it wagged the truth.

One need not discard the phenomenon of automatic writing because one incident seems not to have been worth the candle. In parapsychological spiritism, if one may so categorize it, automatic writing, which in nearly every case except that cited above, is done manually, is most frequently not duplicative. That is it is not, nor does it pretend to be, a simulation of the script of a specific dead person with whose original penmanship the mediumistic work is expected to match. On some occasions this does occur, and, clearly, this elaboration of the exercise adds a further dimension of interest and mystery.

Automatic writing may go so far as to imitate the handwriting and signature of the deceased, even when he was unknown to the subject [medium]. A court of law would ask no further proof of identity. We recall the Aksakof case. His wife, in a state of trance, wrote two letters signed ‘Nicholas’ in old-fashion letters. Nicholas was identified as a priest who had once lived in the neighbourhood, and a document in the same writing was found in the archives of the church.

Flournoy’s case is a classic of this kind. Helénè Smith [15] spontaneously gave him a communication from two former inhabitants of a small township in Savoy. They were the curé Burnier and the trustee Chaumonet, who had died more than fifty years before. Their signatures, produced in a hypnotic state, were identical with those discovered by research. The medium claimed that she had never been in the district. [16] Hélène Smith, a pseudonym employed by Théodor Flournoy to identify the medium in his romantic study titled From India to the Planet Mars, [17] who was born about 1864, [18] became prominent around the time of the first [19] of the famous Boston spiritualists, Mrs. Piper. A Swiss who went to school in Geneva, she was the daughter of a Hungarian who was extraordinarily facile in languages, speaking not only his own language but German, French, Italian, and Spanish fluently, knew English and Latin, fairly well, and had a smattering of Greek. He had three other children, a girl younger than the forthcoming psychic, who died in childhood, and two older sons. Helene, unlike so very many paranormals, had a completely healthy, even robust, childhood. Curiously, while of a Protestant family, she was baptized Catholic, although her name was in the registry of a Protestant church in Geneva. While neither parent displayed any psychic talent, her grandmother and a brother appear to have had some talent along these lines. Evidence of Hélène’s abilities emerged early on with a propensity toward “table tipping,” which was popular at the time, developing into sporadic “visions.” On one night, as her small child lay ill, she and her husband slept in the same room. Suddenly she awakened and saw an angel of shimmering light with arms stretched over her daughter’s crib. Just as quickly he disappeared. The child died the next day.


10 Parapsychology. p. 199 Back to text

11 ESP, Seers and Psychics. Milbourne Christopher. Thomas Y. Crowell. 1970. His chapter on Palladino is most informative and referenced despite its brevity. pp188-204. Back to text

12 Ibid. 201 Back to text

13 Ibid. 199 Back to text

14 A small triangle of wood (usually on three half-inch legs but sometimes lying directly on the ouija board in cheap editions) which, when lightly touched by the sitters’ fingers, is expected to move about of its own accord, singling out a succession of letters (and occasionally numbers) to convey a message. Back to text

15 Most famous as the subject of From India to the Planet Mars, in which are described her writings about Mars and her communication with Martians. Prof. Thomas Flournoy. Harper & Brothers, New York. 1900. Back to text

16 Parapsychology. p.338. Back to text

17 Subtitled: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia. Translated by Daniel B. Vermilye. 1st ed., Harper & Brothers. New York and London, 1900 Back to text

18 Ibid. p. 1. Back to text

19 As famous in her own time was Margery Crandon, the celebrated medium of that city who flourished from the early 1920s to the early 1930s. She was the wife of a prominent surgeon. Back to text

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Paris Flammonde was born in Virginia a long time ago of ancestry (almost half English, with a element of Welsh, and a quarter Scot and a quarter Irish) that dates to the 15th Century in the British Isles. He attended university at Chicago and then moved to Greenwich Village where, in 1954, he initiated the “performance coffee house,” which was quickly echoed in San Francisco, and afterwards everywhere. During the quarter of a century living in that New York community, he was the producer of the Long John Nebel Radio (and television) Shows (6,000 hours), on which he appeared regularly as “house poet & panelist” (1,500 hours). He has had fifteen books published, including the first on the inquiry of the JFK murder by New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, for whom he was to do some investigative work (The Kennedy Conspiracy, Meredith, 1968). A score of years afterwards, Flammonde did the definitive historical study, The Assassination of America, a four-volume work. He has published in Harpers, Cavalier, The Village Voice, Mysteries, and in more than fifty poetry journals, including four dozen issues of the English Candelabrum since 1985. He also writes songs and paints. Much information, including data on many of his books and more biographical details, can be found at his Web site,