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Mr and Mrs Howitt and spirit granddaughter PRM photo collections 2009.148.3Mr and Mrs Howitt and spirit granddaughter PRM photo collections 2009.148.3Final version of talk given to the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum at its Kenneth Kirkwood day on 16.3.2013 by Alison Petch. For interest the slides shown at the talk are noted, though they are not shown on this site. Please note, however, that the two images shown at the beginning of this page are mentioned later in the talk.

Spirited Enquiry: Pitt-Rivers, Tylor, and the Séance

In this talk I will examine the scientific investigations of spiritualism in the mid nineteenth century England. Spiritualism was literally big business at this time in Britain, as it is again today. Unlike today, when it is considered by many people to be a branch of the entertainment business, in the nineteenth century it was taken very seriously indeed by many people. They believed that the spirits of the dead had the inclination and ability to communicate with the living. For those who believed, it was possible for anyone to receive a spirit message but most of the dear departed seemed to prefer to communicate via professional ‘mediums’ at séances. 

I am not going to examine in any depth spiritualism and psychic phenomenon but I am going to consider the involvement of the scientific community in general in these matters and look specifically at the involvement of two men closely associated with the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford: Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers and Edward Burnett Tylor. These men were colleagues and friends, they would attend the same social events, and stay with each other, they even once took a holiday together in Scotland with their families. They were both intimately involved with the development of the linked disciplines of anthropology and archaeology in this country. Augustus Pitt-Rivers was, of course, the donor of a collection of more than 22,000 objects to the University of Oxford in 1884, a donation that founded the institution of which you are all Friends. At the time covered by this talk, however, Pitt-Rivers was known as Lane Fox (as he was until 1880) and it is by this name that I will refer to him for the rest of this paper. Tylor was the first Reader of Anthropology at Oxford and Keeper of the Oxford University Museum from 1883. He would not have got these posts without the support of Lane Fox.

Spiritualism and science in the mid-19th century

Mr John Jones and spirit daughter PRM photo collections 2009.148.4Mr John Jones and spirit daughter PRM photo collections 2009.148.4I will start by looking at mid-nineteenth century spiritualism and the scientific community’s involvement with it generally, then look specifically at Lane Fox's and Tylor’s participation before drawing my conclusions.

[slide Fox sisters] It has been stated that ‘Spiritualism developed and reached its peak ... from the 1840s to the 1920s, especially in English-language countries. By 1897, it was said to have more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe, mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes.’ George Stocking, in an essay written in 1971 about Tylor’s involvement with spiritualism, says that:

'... the origin of the [spiritualist] movement is customarily dated with great precision to March 31, 1848. On that date in the village of Hydesville near Rochester, New York, the prepubescent daughters of a Methodist farmer named Fox discovered that the strange tappings which had disturbed the family’s sleep for several weeks seemed to convey meaningful messages about a murder that had taken place in the house before the Foxes moved in. ... these spirit manifestations quickly became a matter of considerable local interest. Indeed, the Fox girls—with the assistance of the entertainment entrepreneur P.T. Barnam—were soon to be the agents for the rapid spread of “spiritualism” ... In October 1852, the by then rather more highly elaborated spiritual manifestations were introduced into England by the first of a long series of visiting American mediums.’ [1]

At the same time as a belief in the spirit world was spreading through England, English intellectuals were developing various scientific disciplines including the natural sciences, archaeology and, of course, anthropology. Some authors believe that the growth of scientific thinking in the 19th century may have unwittingly spurred-on interest in psychic phenomenon:

'The [19th century’s] focus on physical explanations for the structure of the universe and man's position within it had one unexpected result. The rise of spiritualism ... seems to have been a direct response to the need for physical manifestations of supernatural realities. If the dead could materialise during séances, and be photographed and touched, would this not provide evidence that the afterlife did exist after all? Interest in mediums and spiritualist networks quickly sprang up, with both Christian and non-Christian adherents. ... Spiritualist churches and meetings also had a strong following in less eminent circles ... A surprising number of middle-class housewives developed a talent for automatic writing, trances and table tipping. ... While the driving force behind spiritualism was [to] prove the existence of an afterlife, throughout the nineteenth century there was also a broader enthusiasm for exploring and manipulating the conscious and unconscious spirits of the living. This took many forms, including mesmerism and hypnosis ... [and an] interest in the subconscious and the nature of dreams ...' [2]

Almost inevitably scientists were drawn into the great debates about spiritualism. Whilst some of the investigating scientists remained sceptical of the phenomena, or, indeed, de-bunkers and non-believers; several of the scientists later became converts. The converts included chemist and physicist William Crookes (1832-1919) and also the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), now known as one of the fathers of evolution about whom I shall speak next. Both of these men were known personally by Tylor and Lane Fox.

[slide of Crookes]

'In 1870 [William] Crookes decided that science had a duty to study the preternatural phenomena associated with spiritualism. Judging from family letters, Crookes had already developed a favorable view of spiritualism by 1869. ... Nevertheless, he was determined to conduct his inquiry impartially and described the conditions he imposed on mediums as follows: "It must be at my own house, and my own selection of friends and spectators, under my own conditions, and I may do whatever I like as regards apparatus". Among the mediums he studied were Kate Fox, [one of the sisters we met earlier], Florence Cook, and Daniel Dunglas Home [who we will hear about again later]. Among the phenomena he witnessed were movement of bodies at a distance, rappings, changes in the weights of bodies, levitation, appearance of luminous objects, appearance of phantom figures, appearance of writing without human agency ... To find support and assistance for his inquiry, he joined the Society for Psychical Research, becoming its president in the 1890s: he also joined the Theosophical Society and the Ghost Club, of which he was president from 1907 to 1912. ... His report on this research in 1874 concluded that these phenomena could not be explained as conjuring, and that further research would be useful. Crookes was not alone in his views. ... Nevertheless, most scientists were convinced that spiritualism was fraudulent, and Crookes' final report so outraged the scientific establishment "that there was talk of depriving him of his Fellowship of the Royal Society." Crookes then became much more cautious and didn't discuss his views publicly until 1898, when he felt his position was secure.' [3]

[slide of Wallace] Alfred Russel Wallace had, of course, been involved in the foremost scientific controversy of the mid-19th century: that of evolution.  In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1861, Wallace explained his religious beliefs:

'... I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths. ... I am thankful I can see much to admire in all religions. To the mass of mankind religion of some kind is a necessity. But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth, or believe that those will be better off in a future state who have lived in the belief of doctrines inculcated from childhood, and which are to them rather a matter of blind faith than intelligent conviction.' [4]

Early in his career he was an enthusiast for phrenology and he experimented with mesmerism. He began investigating spiritualism in 1865 when he reviewed the literature on the topic and attempted to test the phenomena he witnessed at séances. For the rest of his life, he remained convinced that at least some of these phenomena were genuine, no matter how many accusations of fraud were made or how much evidence of trickery was produced. Wallace's very public advocacy of spiritualism and his repeated defence of mediums against allegations of fraud in the 1870s damaged his scientific reputation. The ensuing controversy affected the public perception of Wallace’s work for the rest of his career.

In August 1893 Wallace gave a talk to the Psychical Congress in Chicago, entitled ‘Notes on the Growth of Opinion as to Obscure Psychical Phenomena during the last fifty years’. [5] In it he records that he first became interested in psychical phenomenon in 1843 with what came to be called hypnotism and its use at that time by some surgeons (this practice has been revived over the last few years of course), he also learned auto-hypnosis. It is clear that, whatever his interests, Wallace never lost his belief in scientific thought and methodology:

'For myself, I never have been able to see why any one hypothesis should be less scientific than another, except so far as one explains the whole of the facts and the other explains only a part of them. It was this alone that rendered the theory of gravitation more scientific than that of cycles and epicycles, the undulatory theory of light more scientific than the emission theory, and the theory of Darwin more scientific than that of Lamarck. It is often said that we must exhaust known causes before we call in unknown causes to explain phenomena.' [6]

We have seen how these two scientists’ investigations into psychic phenomena had resulted in their private belief and advocacy but ensured enduring public derision: now let us examine some further, but more sceptical, scientific investigations.

It is worth noting at this juncture that the majority of Victorian scientists did not become believers in spiritualism, indeed Thomas Henry Huxley declined to take part in the Dialectical Society’s investigations saying that he had better things to do than to listen ‘to the chatter of old women and curates in the nearest cathedral town’ [7] However it is also clear that whilst many ridiculed the idea, other scientists had become involved in the study of spiritualism by 1876. Many learned societies showed a strong interest in the study of the phenomena: the British Association for the Advancement of Science [BAAS], as we will see, and the Anthropological Society of London were both the foci of such investigations.  Two members of both learned societies were Augustus Lane-Fox and Edward Burnett Tylor to whom we will turn soon.

[Slide of William Fletcher Barrett] One of the best known incursions of spiritualism into the 19th century scientific world was when it was discussed at the Glasgow meeting of the BAAS in 1876:

'Sir William (then Professor) Barrett brought the subject of Spiritualism before the British Association ... in 1876. His paper was entitled "On Some Phenomena associated with Abnormal Conditions of Mind." He had difficulty in obtaining a hearing. The Biological Committee refused to accept the paper and passed it on to the Anthropological Sub-section, who only accepted it on the casting vote of the chairman, Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. Colonel Lane Fox helped to overcome the opposition by asking why, as they had discussed ancient witchcraft the previous year, they should not examine modern witchcraft that year. The first part of Professor Barrett's paper dealt with mesmerism, but in the second part he related his experiences of Spiritualistic phenomena, and urged that further scientific examination should be given to the subject. He gave the convincing details of a remarkable experience he had had of raps occurring with a child. In the ensuing discussion Sir William Crookes spoke of the levitations he had witnessed with D.D. Home, and said of levitation: "The evidence in favour of it is stronger than the evidence in favour of almost any natural phenomenon the British Association could investigate." ‘... I have always tried, where it has been possible, to make the physical apparatus test the things themselves, and have not trusted more than is possible to my own senses. But when it is necessary to trust to my senses, I must entirely dissent from Mr. Barrett, when he says a trained physical inquirer is no match for a professional conjurer. I maintain a physical inquirer is more than a match.’ An important contribution to the discussion was made by Lord Rayleigh, the distinguished mathematician, who said: ‘I think we are much indebted to Professor Barrett for his courage, for it requires some courage to come forward in this matter, and to give us the benefit of his careful experiments. ... I have seen enough to convince me that those are wrong who wish to prevent investigation by casting ridicule on those who may feel inclined to engage in it.’ The next speaker, Mr. Groom Napier, was greeted with laughter when he described verified psychometric descriptions of people from their handwriting enclosed in sealed envelopes, and when he went on to describe spirit lights that he had seen, the uproar forced him to resume his seat. Professor Barrett, in replying to his critics, said: ‘It certainly shows the immense advance that this subject has made within the last few years, that a paper on the once laughed-at phenomena of so-called Spiritualism should have been admitted into the British Association, and should have been permitted to receive the full discussion it has had to-day.’ [8]

One of the unfortunate ramifications of this meeting, and Wallace’s support for the debate to continue, was that when, in 1879, Darwin first tried to rally support among naturalists to get a civil pension awarded to him, Joseph Hooker responded:

'Wallace has lost caste considerably, not only by his adhesion to Spiritualism, but by the fact of his having deliberately and against the whole voice of the committee of his section of the British Association, brought about a discussion on Spiritualism at one of its sectional meetings. That he is said to have done so in an underhanded manner, and I well remember the indignation it gave rise to in the B.A. Council.' [9].

Eventually Hooker relented and supported the pension request. As I intimated before, Wallace’s interest in spiritualism adversely affected not only his later scientific career but also his scientific reputation, only now is his reputation being reassessed in the centenary celebrations of his death.

[Slide of Davenport Brothers] The involvement of the Anthropological Society was explained by Stocking:

‘In 1868, an attempt was made to involve the Anthropological Society of London in evaluating the claims of the Davenport brothers, visiting American mediums whose speciality was producing a variety of spiritual manifestations while their hands were tightly bound. After one unsuccessful séance, the committee of the Anthropological Society specified a number of conditions for their continued participation; and when these were declined, they withdrew from the investigation.” [10]

Tylor, Lane Fox, and the Séance

Now I will tell you about Tylor and Lane Fox’s interest in spiritualism.

[slide of Tylor] Edward Burnett Tylor, brought up a Quaker, was always very interested in religious matters, and specifically in animism about which he devotes parts of his most famous book, Primitive Culture.

In a letter to our old friend, Alfred Wallace, dated 26th November 1866 Tylor wrote:

'You dropped no hint of your belief in Spiritualism when I was last at your house, or I should have been glad to talk the matter over with you. I was much set against the spiritualists years ago by going to a great display at the Hanover Square Rooms, and making acquaintance with some people who proved to be paid "subjects", and whose appearance and way was not prepossessing at least as far as scientific credibility went. So far as I know anything of your list of believers in spiritualism I cannot say I like them as observers in a field of enquiry particularly haunted by professional impostors. But I believe you really know how to observe and describe, why do you not make a series of direct investigations yourself with all precautions against imagination and fraud? Your results would, I believe, be thought more of, whatever results they might lead you to, than all the spiritualistic literature extant, but when you reason at second-hand on the facts related by Home and so on, I confess I do not attach at all the same weight to your argument. ... Your book strongly confirms me in the opinion I have expressed of the notions of the spiritualists being mostly familiar to the lower races now and in ancient times. We may not agree as to the causes of these notions and the basis of fact they may have, but when you see my facts compared with the spiritualistic books, you will have to admit the great extent to which these books reproduce the known opinions of half-civilised and savage races. As you think so well of the spirit doctrine from the evidence of others, I hope very much that you will make a careful set of observations of your own.' [11]

[slide of Mrs Guppy] Tylor obviously continued this discussion with Wallace for several months for Tylor’s next spiritualist experience took place in 1867 (presumably a month or so after the above letter) in a session with Mrs Samuel Guppy, a very famous medium, at [quess where?!] Alfred Wallace’s house. [12] Details of this and other Tylorian encounters with spiritualism are given in George Stocking's famous paper 'Animism in Theory and Practice: Tylor's unpublished 'Notes on Spiritualism', published in 1971 in Man[13] which is based upon a notebook in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s manuscript collections. [14] George Stocking remarked of this account:

‘[It's] tone is so strikingly different from the debunking dismissal of spiritualism in Primitive Culture that I immediately thought of publication.’ [15]

Mrs Guppy had first been discovered as a medium at Wallace's house in 1866. A description of her activities recounts:

'In the darkness, while holding the sitters' hands, she was several times lifted on top of the table in her chair [though she is always described as being of ‘stout build’]. Independent music and apport phenomena came next. On many occasions flowers and fruits, sometimes in large quantities, fell onto the séance table from an unknown source.' [16]

Apparently sitters could even make requests for the types of vegetation they wished to appear! She was also famous for being placed in a tightly sealed cabinet before her work, in order to 'build up sufficient power for the construction of the spirit form which could then stand the scrutiny of the light outside the cabinet'. The same source points out that:

'The cabinet also provided, of course, an ideal opportunity for subterfuge on the part of the medium, ... rarely were [the] medium and her spirit seen together at the same time.' [17]

Though we might suppose that any fraudulence shown by the protagonists mentioned in this talk must have been activated by the need for money, or greed, this motivation was reportedly lacking in the case of Mrs Samuel Guppy and her husband, who was extremely rich.

His experiences with Mrs Guppy did not dampen Tylor's enthusiasm for research into spiritualism. In 1869 Tylor published 'a more extended treatment of 'the ethnography of spiritualism'. Here he dealt with various specific phenomenon, rapping (not the form we know today!), unconscious writing, levitation etc, arguing in each case that they had extensive analogues among savage tribes and in earlier periods of European history'.[18]

[slide of Home] In 1872 Tylor seemed to reach psychical research overdrive. In the spring he attended a séance at Walter Crooke's house [the brother of William] with Daniel Dunglas Home [pronounced Hume]:

'We sat long, & at last rappings were heard, which by convenient testimony were agreed to come from different points of the large table, and also appeared to come sometimes from floor & skirting. An accordion under the table held wrong end up by Home played a few notes ... The table was tilted  ... All complained that the sitting was a total failure, but I failed to make out how either raps, table-levitation or accordion-playing were produced.  ... My distrust was excited by Home's cleverness, and by the way he could get a pretty woman like Mrs Walter Crookes to dance with joy at sitting down to his performance ...' [19]

[slide of Home levitating] Home was a Scottish medium, infamous for his ability to levitate and other psychic phenomena. He held his first séance in 1851 in the US, where he was then living. His levitation was recorded by an observer: "We all saw him rise from the ground slowly to a height of about six inches, remain there for about ten seconds, and then slowly descend" [20] though he was once supposed to have levitated as far as the ceiling.

Tylor’s longer investigations into spiritual manifestations, which lasted for the whole of November 1872 in London, seem to have been in response to a new phenomena, that of ‘manifestations of visible, palpable spirit figures’ by many mediums, starting in January 1872 by Mrs Samuel Guppy (her again!). [21] He attended a long series of séances presented by several mediums. His account records his attitude to the manifestations, what he observed and what he experienced; because the surviving notebook is written so neatly one must assume that it was a re-writing of rougher notes made at the time, or shortly after each occasion. He summed up one of his early séance experiences:

Verdict: subjectivity, hysteria, & the poorest cockiest dodging & fortune-telling [22]

[slide of Alice Lane Fox etc] And this note of scepticism permeates throughout. You can read all of the entries (bar a few words that were illegible to the author) in George Stocking’s aforementioned paper. Tylor’s notebook records his encounter with a Mrs Bassett at a Miss Kislingbury of London, on November 18 1872:

'Nov. 18. Miss Kislingbury, ...  governess to Mr and Mrs Davey, a nice intelligent but rather wild eyed thin woman of 30 or 35, was unhappy till she got into spiritualism, going by herself to séances to the disgust of her family, whom however she has now converted. She kindly hunted up at great trouble to herself Mrs Bassett. Of Mrs Bassett I had heard twice before ... once from Col. Lane Fox, who was with his wife at a séance at Lady Powlett's. When the phosphoric lights came, Mrs L-F [Lane Fox] let go Mrs Crookes' hand, jumped up & caught the lights & a very human hand, which struggled out of her grasp, which of course in the elaborate Medium report became a spirit hand. Mrs L-F has not I think cared much for the business since.' [14]

Here we meet Alice Lane Fox, who has never been given much prominence when scholars look at her husband's life and work but I think deserves more attention and more credit for acting so decisively at the séance. Tylor goes on to explain his own experience with Mrs Bassett:

'I arrived at Miss Kislingbury’s and found the stout Mrs Bassett, Mr W.H. Harrison, Editor of The Spiritualist, Mrs and Miss Kislingbury. First we sat round the table to hear raps. They were near the medium, & some purported to come from Isaac, a relative of the Kislingbury family, who afterwards, when the name Waterlow had been suggested as a relative, solidified into Isaac Waterlow. What he rapped out did not come to much, only ordinary messages. The little apparatus of sprinkled starch & stretched blotting papers which I had brought for impression, the spirits unequivocally declared their disgust at, saying they couldn’t do anything with them. The raps might easily have been done mechanically. Then the lights being put out, the medium talked in her natural voice, & then from a foot or two behind & above the ordinary position of her head, there would issue a croaking voice of a spirit talking the stupidest buffoonery, & saying he had materialised himself & voice & was making a hand. As it seemed to me that the medium, for the purpose of sending her own voice from another spot, merely leant back & put her head back, I held the tips of my fingers behind her head while she was speaking naturally, & as she actually came back upon them, removed them & I do not know if they were felt. I was touched on the shoulder by her (I sat next to her), so presently tried with the fingertips again between us, and met an arm in the same feel of dress (woollen, perhaps the objection of spirits to silk dresses is their bustling) as the medium wore. ... Though I had been told that a gratuity would be accepted as she had to go about so much, she would not take anything, but was seen off into her omnibus. I cannot understand her, & she may believe in herself to a certain extent, but no doubt she cheated unscrupulously. ... afterwards I went some way with W.H. Harrison ... After much talk I ventured to say that I had felt Mrs Bassett’s arm coming out to touch me. I said rather gingerly expecting the disclosure would hurt him, but he calmly replied “you know that hands & arms & dresses that the spirits materialise are so like the ordinary ones, that it’s impossible to distinguish them.” But, said I, the arm came out from the woman’s shoulder to touch me! “Yes” he said, “you scientific men must of course give such natural explanation as seems sufficient to you, but we know, etc etc.” After which there was not much to be said ...'  [14][23]

Mrs Bassett is described by Conan Doyle in his history of spiritualism of 1926 as ‘a well-known English voice medium in the eighteen 'seventies’. [8] William Henry Harrison, the editor of the Spiritualist, and also a photographer, was obviously much more persuaded by the séance than his companion on the walk home; it is clear from the above passage that Tylor was quite sceptical of Mrs Bassett’s mediumship.

Attendance at séances at this time is not proof of credulous belief, many people (including Tylor) attended in a spirit of scepticism. His final entry at the end of his November 1872 fieldwork is strongly worded but not conclusive:

'Nov. 28. Returned home. What I have seen & heard fails to convince me that there is a genuine residue. It all might have been legerdemain, & was so in great measure, except that legerté is too complimentary for the clumsiness of many of the obvious imposters. The weight of the argument lies in the testimony of other witnesses, such as Serjeant Cox declaring he had seen a table rise in the air, etc., ... My judgment is in abeyance. I admit a prima facie case on evidence, & will not deny that there may be a psychic force causing raps, movements, levitations etc. But it has not proved itself by evidence of my senses, and I distinctly think the case weaker than written documents led me to think. Seeing has not (to me) been believing, & I propose a new text to define faith: “Blessed are they that have seen, and yet have believed.”' [24]

Tylor never published his accounts from November 1872 and they lay undiscovered in the Pitt Rivers Museum from his death in 1917 until Stocking published them in 1971, just under a century later.

[Slide of spirit photograph 1, shown at the top of this page] Tylor also collected at least two spirit photographs. [2009.148.3-4] These are photographs which hoped to capture images of ghosts and other spiritual entities. They were first created in the 1860s by William H. Mumier. Although he was quickly exposed as a fraud, other photographers continued to produce such images.

In the aforementioned 1872 notebook were pasted two photographs. The first shown here on this slide portrays the seated figure of the well-known author, William Howitt, with possibly his wife, Mary Botham, standing behind and a 'ghostly figure' (which looks to modern eyes much more like someone pretending to be a ghost wearing a white sheet). This carte-de-visite is captioned 'Spirit photograph of William Howitt (in the flesh) and granddaughter (in the spirit)' in ink on the back. William Howitt (1792-1879) was born a Quaker (like Tylor), an English writer who became interested in spiritualism in 1847 when he and his wife left the Quaker community. In 1863 he published The History of the Supernatural in all Ages and Nations, and in all Churches, Christian and Pagan, demonstrating a Universal Faith. He was one of the London literary men who ran The Spiritual Magazine between 1863 and 1875. His wife Mary (1799-1888) was also a Quaker by birth, and a poet. She also became very interested in spiritualism and after her husband's death was eventually christened into the Roman Catholic church.

[Slide of 2nd spirit photograph, the second photograph on this page] This second carte-de-visite was also owned by Tylor, I suspect he owned other spirit photographs as well that perhaps have not survived. This one shows a man sitting in a chair, with a female dressed in white sitting on the ground beside him. It is described underneath as a "real spirit photograph of Mr John Jones in the body and the spirit supposed to be a deceased daughter.’ The photographer is suggested as Frederick Hudson and the photograph was obtained by Tylor from Burns Spiritual Institution, for 1 shilling. The Burns Spiritual Institution at Southampton Row London (founded in 1862 by James Burn (1835-1894)) was a reading room, and provided space for séances, it became a centre for spiritualism in the UK.

Frederick Augustus Hudson is known to have taken many spirit photographs beginning, (coincidentally, in Tylor's year of spiritualism research), in 1872. Hudson ‘was occasionally caught in the act of faking his images, and was even found dressing up to play the role of the ghost. Nevertheless, he "became the best known British psychic photographer and was known for producing supernormal extras on his plates under the closest of scrutiny.”’ [25] Hudson produced the images using:

'... an ingenious camera manufactured by Howell, a famous London maker of conjuring apparatus. This camera was of the old square wooden type and contained a light metal frame that in its normal position rested on the bottom of the smaller of the camera's two telescopic portions. This frame held a waxed paper positive of the desired ghostly "extra." When the dark slide was pushed into the camera, it actuated a lever, raising the frame to a vertical position in contact with the photographic plate. When the picture was taken, the extra image was also printed on the plate. When the plate was drawn out of the camera the frame automatically fell back to its hidden position. Fifty-four "spirit photographs" taken in this way are reproduced in the book Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings, by Georgina Houghton [published in] 1882'. [26]

It has been suggested that William Howitt obtained (or also obtained) spirit photographs of his two deceased sons from Frederick Hudson, so it is possible he is also the photographer for the image of the deceased granddaughter. [26]

Although these photographs were found pasted into the 1872 notebook it does not necessarily mean that they both came into Tylor's ownership then. Tylor may have known the Howitts through the Quaker community, he certainly knew William Howitt personally from his work in 1872 if not earlier. [Stocking 1971: 96] The Howitts may have given Tylor the photograph directly; or, as both photographs may have been taken by Frederick Hudson, it may be they were obtained directly from him or via an agent. There are two further photographs in the notebook: this time publicity carte-de-visite of Home and three other mediums. [27]

It will have become clear to you all what a tangled network of people was involved in mid-nineteenth century spiritualism, but just to confirm how tangled it was, according to one source Hudson only got involved in spirit photography because:

'In March 1872 Samuel Guppy and his wife, Agnes ... who made several unsuccessful experiments to obtain psychic photographs in their own home, went on an impulse to Hudson's studio, which was nearby. A white patch resembling the outline of a draped figure was obtained behind Mr. Guppy's portrait. The experiment was repeated with increasing success.' [28]

Tylor probably maintained an interest in spiritualist and related matters throughout his life: in 1885 his wife’s diary records that he and Anna Tylor indulged in sessions of ‘thought reading’ on 4 August 1885, ‘I thought of Kangaroo and Edwd guessed it’. They repeated the game on 17 October 1885 (when they experimented with the Woods and the Macans in Oxford) and in April 1891 during a visit to Paris Anna records ‘E[dward]. with Ray Lankester & Romanes to see hypnotism ... [a] curious visit ...’. [29]

[Slide of Pitt-Rivers] We will now look at Augustus Henry Lane Fox. He might have been involved in 'evaluating the claims of the Davenport brothers, the visiting American mediums', as an active member of the Anthropological Society of London in 1868. His interest obviously continued after this for we do know that he and Alice attended the séance at Lady Powlett's, we do not know when but it must have been before November 1872.

[Slide of George Rolleston] Two letters survive that give us information about his next involvement with spiritualism, when he investigated the activities of Henry Slade in the mid 1870s. [30] The letters were written by Lane Fox to George Rolleston, a friend and colleague with shared interests in archaeology and anthropology. Rolleston worked in the Oxford University Museum and was a fellow member of many London-based learned societies.

[Slide of Slade] Henry Slade (1836-1905) was a famous psychic and spiritualist medium, who lived and practiced in both Europe and North America. He claimed that his wife's spirit wrote him messages on slates. He visited England en route for Russia, and held many sittings. His first séance in UK was held in July 1876.

Lane Fox's first letter reads:

'Dear Prof Rolleston

I understand they i.e. the spiritualists have sent you an invitation to go & see this exhibition of Mr Slade’s. If you do go notice some points that attracted my attention today when I went. This writing on the slate is evidently done by the small fragment of slate pencil which is put on the slate, and whilst the slate is under the table. Without doing anything, I noticed the position of the fragment of pencil at the time he put it under the table and also immediately after it was taken up with the writing on it & I found that it had changed and settled on the end of the last stroke of the writing thus for example one of the answers written was “he is not *” and the fragment of slate was in the position in which I have marked the * this convinces me that the slate is not charged but that the writing is done in some ways whilst it is under the table and by the piece of pencil. I also noticed that the appearance of the hand was in a position in which Mr Slade’s hand would naturally have appeared if he pushed it forward and up from under the table the appearance was so rudimentary that it might well have been done in this way. Also notice the carpet under the table to see if any thing can be shoved up from the floor. It is I think worth investigating as many people are being bamboozled by it.

Yours sincerely

A Lane Fox' [30]

and his second:

'I am sorry you did not go, the subject, whether it be all quackery or partly quackery or partly insanity or partly true, is doubtless an important one for anthropology. I should not have thought the subject worth investigating had it not been for the proof I have of unconscious writing in my own family where I know there is no deception. I have seen it present over & over again thus, some of my children do write unconsciously full & connective answers to questions put to them although they are in no way given to unconscious action at other times and further I have proved that two or more acting in concert produces a more intense manifestation of the phenomenon, whatever it is, than when it is done singly, consequently it can’t be the unconscious action of one mind, in fact, in the case of my children, one of them cannot do it alone and this is what [illegible] me. I should have liked much to have heard your opinion on the subject as you are not biased towards either side. I met Professor Barrett there and have twice written to him my opinion to what I saw. I think the subject ought to be brought forward & discussed by good men. Certainly nothing I saw at Mr Slade’s impressed me so much as what I have seen done at home. ...' [30]

Automatic writing has been described as:

'... writing allegedly directed by a spirit or by the unconscious mind. It is sometimes called "trance" writing because it is done quickly and without judgment, writing whatever comes to mind, "without consciousness," as if in a trance. It is believed that this allows one to tap into the subconscious mind, where "the true self" dwells.' [31]

[Slide of Evolution of Culture] I think, as an aside, that Lane Fox's interest in automatic writing mirrors his interest in the way that images change when repeated, as most obviously shown in this image from one of his most famous publications, 'The Evolution of Culture'. It supposedly shows the way that an image of a human figure becomes abstracted over time as it is copied and recopied. [Slide of Instructions etc] Lane Fox carried out experiments on this phenomenon among his own family, as seen here. You can find out more about these interests of his on the Pitt-Rivers website, Rethinking Pitt-Rivers if you search for articles on paddles, and the drawing game. The drawing game, of course, does not shown spiritualism in practice, or even automatic drawing, but it does show his interest in how the human sub-conscious affects physical phenomena.

[Slide of Lankester] To return to our main story, George Rolleston may have refused to investigate Slade but one of his ex-students, E. Ray Lankester, then Professor of Zoology at University College, London, stepped into the breach. In The Times of Saturday 16 September 1876 are published three related letters from E. Ray Lankester, Horatio Bryan Donkin and A. Lane Fox, headed 'A Spirit-Medium'. [32]

Lankester writes:

'... Sir,-- I trust that you will find space for a brief account of an interview with "Dr." Slade from which I have just returned. In consequence of the more than questionable action of Mr Alfred Wallace, the discussions of the British Association have been degraded by the introduction of the subject of spiritualism, and the public has learnt--perhaps it is time they should--that "men of science" are not exempt as a body from the astounding credulity which prevails in this country and America. It is, therefore, incumbent upon those who consider such credulity deplorable to do all in their power to arrest this development. [Slide of Slade and Lankester] My friend Mr Serjeant Cox having begged me to go and see the medium Slade, ... I wrote to that person and obtained an appointment for last Monday morning. Slade's chief "manifestation" is of this kind:--The witness and Slade being alone in an ordinary well-lit sitting room, Slade produces a common slate and a small piece of slate pencil, which are laid on a simple four-legged table, at one corner of which the witness and Slade are seated. Slade then shows the witness that there is no writing on either side of the slate. He then places the slate horizontally close against the table and, below it, pressing the slate against the table, the little piece of slate pencil being supposed to be between the slate and the flat undersurface of the table. The slate is so closely-applied to the table that no hand or finger could possible get between them in order to write. A noise as of writing is now heard proceeding from the slate, which is held by Slade or by the witness--the spirit is supposed to be at work. The slate is then removed, and the message is found written either on the undersurface of the slate or on the surface which was facing the lower surface of the table. I watched Slade very closely during these proceedings, which were repeated several times during my interview last Monday, paying no attention to the raps, gentle kicks, and movements of the table, of which I will say nothing further than that they were all such as could be readily produced by the medium's legs and feet. I simulated considerable agitation and an ardent belief in the mysterious nature of what I saw and heard. At the same time I was utterly astounded to find the strongest reason to believe that, with the exception of the first message, which was written by Slade underneath the slate with (I believe) one finger of the hand which was holding the slate, the rest of the messages, which were longer and better written, were coolly indited on the slate by Slade while it was resting on his knee, concealed from my view by the edge of the table, and that the slate was subsequently placed by him in the position where the spirit-writing was to take place with the message already written upon it. I was led to form this hypothesis by noting the delay which always occurred between my being shown the slate with both sides clean and the placing of the slate against the table or over my head for the purpose of receiving the spirit writing, which was then heard proceeding with the usual sound of scratching on a slate ... During the delay Slade made various excuses; took up a little pencil and bit it, and also invariable made a peculiar grating noise by clearing his throat. At the same time I heard distinctly on three occasions a low but perfectly recognisable sound of a pencil traversing a slate, and twice on looking quickly at Slade's right arm, the elbow of which was visible, while the rest was hidden by the table and purporting to be holding the slate, I saw movements from right to left and left to right which accorded with my hypothesis that he was using his hand in writing. ... This morning I went with my friend Dr. H.B. Donkin, of Queen's College, Oxford, to test my hypothesis by this crucial experiment:--I had determined to seize the slate at the critical moment--at the moment when Slade professed it was entirely untouched ... There had been the usual delay and fumbling on Slade's part when I put out my hand and immediately seized the slate away, saying, "You have already written on the slate. I have watched you doing it each time." And there, sure enough, was the message already written, as I had anticipated.' [32]

Horatio Donkin's account in his own letter to the Times confirms this account. He also adds:

'To make the exposure still more perfect I may add that the first of the two later messages referred to consisted of two words read by the medium as "Samuel Lankester," in answer to the question as to what spirits were present. The "Samuel" being very indistinct my friend suggested it might be "Edwin" which the medium said was quite possible. The last message was an answer to the same question, and, the suggestion being adopted, the words "Edwin Lankester" were perfectly clear. To anyone not pre-disposed to believe in spirit agency at all hazards, the result of this séance is sufficient.' [32]

[Slide of Slade’s trial] As a later account in Scientific American makes clear:

'The next day Slade and his partner, Geoffrey Simmonds, were in the hands of the police, charged with violating the Vagrancy Act, an old law intended to protect the public from travelling palm readers and sleight-of-hand artists. Throughout the fall of 1876, all London was abuzz over the Slade trial. The little courtroom was packed with Slade’s supporters and detractors and 30 journalists, who spilled out into the street. The Times of London carried trial transcripts day after day. ... Both scientists turned out to be terrible witnesses; their observational skills, developed in anatomy and physiology labs, were useless in detecting fraud by professional cheats. As Huxley later noted, “.... A man may be an excellent naturalist or chemist; and yet make a very poor detective.” Indeed, Lankester and Donkin apparently could not agree on anything much beyond their charge that Slade was an impostor. ... The two could not establish when or how the writing had been done. But nothing could save Slade. The judge said that he understood that spiritualism was “a kind of new religion” and did not wish to offend sincere believers. Still, the question before the court was whether Slade and Simmonds had fraudulently represented their own actions as paranormal phenomena. Concluding that he must decide “according to the well-known course of nature,” the judge sentenced the defendant to three months’ hard labor in the House of Corrections. Slade never served his sentence. On appeal, another judge ruled that the Vagrancy Act, which prohibited palmistry, was not applicable to claims of spirit writing. Slade and his partner fled England for Germany. ...’ [33]

Lane Fox's letter, also on spiritualism, refers to the debate at the 1876 British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting which I mentioned much earlier in which he felt he had been misreported:

'Sir,-- In your report of the meeting of the British Association on the 13th inst., I am stated to have said that I had witnessed the manifestation of spiritualism. I should be sorry that as President of the Anthropological Institute I should be supposed to have jumped to any such conclusion from the data that are now before us. Will you, therefore, kindly permit me to say that the experiments to which I briefly referred had reference to certain psychical phenomena connected with unconscious writing, and did not necessarily involve any conclusion of spiritualism. The expediency of inquiry into this subject appears to have been fully shown during the recent discussion at Glasgow. When at the present time a case of belief in witchcraft occurs among the lower orders, and some old woman is thrown into a pond for putting a spell on another, it is usual to record the circumstances as a survival of ancient superstition, and a whole district has been condemned as an abyss of ignorance through the existence of one such case; but among the upper classes of society the allied belief in spiritual manifestation through the agency of media is now as widely received as witchcraft was in the 17th century, and is continuing to spread rapidly. One of the main functions of the science of anthropology consists in interpreting the past by the present, the unknown by the known. It is rarely that any popular belief is so entirely devoid of truth as to be destitute of some few grains of fact upon which the belief is founded, and the work of anthropology consists in sifting these facts from the large volume of credulity and some imposture with which they are associated. But although the reading of Professor Barrett's paper at Glasgow may have done good by drawing attention to the prevalence of spiritualism and to the fact that some of our most eminent men of science are believers in it, it is, I think, rather by a committee inquiry that this investigation should be conducted than by public discussion, which, even if it could be restrained within the bounds of reason, is liable to be discredited by the unintentional misrepresentation of the views of the speakers. I remain &c. A. Lane Fox' [32]

It seems that Lane Fox still believed that spiritualism required scientific research but unlike Lankester he was not able yet to totally repudiate it.

It is clear that Lane Fox's interest in spiritualism was more than passing. It seems that he and his family practised unconscious writing, and that he believed that his children were very good at it. It may be that he thought that it showed some links to the more 'primitive' nature of man, and that children would be better at it as they were less mature.

[Slide of St. G Fox Pitt] Lane Fox’s interest in spiritualism was shared with his second son, St George Fox-Pitt. His obituary in The Times in 1932 says:

'... Fox Pitt devoted himself in early manhood to scientific research and mechanical inventions. ... [he] was one of the first active workers in the Society of Psychical Research ... and wrote a number of books on science philosophy, education, and social problems. ... "In a contribution to a book entitled 'Spiritualism: Its Present Day Meaning,' published in 1920, Fox Pitt explained his view that the proposition of an unchangeable and independent 'ego' and its survival was simply unmeaning; an immutable 'psychic body' was simply unmeaning; an immutable 'psychic body' was a pernicious delusion. 'Materializations' were not more than evanescent phenomena. The craving for 'egoistic survival,' in contradistinction to individual continuity, was a very strong one, and in his view was at the root of all evil. He agreed with Bergson that 'supernormal psychic phenomena' were always in operation, though generally speaking unnoticed.' [34]

St George clearly carried on his father’s interest in automatic writing, an article records that he contributed to the discussion about automatic writing in The Journal of Psychical Research. He was apparently a long-term member of the Society, and believed that psychical research was the objective study of paranormal phenomena, though he disapproved of 'spiritualist excesses'. [35]


You can see in both Tylor and Lane Fox’s involvement in spiritualism two of the basic principles of anthropological fieldwork as it would later be termed. Their research involved both participation (active in both cases over many years) and also observation. Indeed you can see in their separate work the very beginnings of fieldwork principles. Tylor, of course, never actually carried out a sustained period of anthropological fieldwork abroad in the classic anthropological mode, but he did encourage others to do so and was part of the discipline’s slow engagement with fieldwork as a key methodology. Lane Fox is infamous for his use of second-hand information, and hands-off attitudes to collecting, but in this regard at least he seems to have been more than willing to get his hands dirty and engage directly in research, just as he did in archaeological excavations.

[Slide of Doyle] To end on a cautionary note, and one that shows that there are connections between almost anything and anyone you might think of and that we are none of us entirely safe from being hoodwinked or credulous: A still famous advocate of spiritualism was Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and seemingly an advocate of rational thought. His association with spiritualism began later than the actions reported above, in 1906, and following several family deaths including that of his wife.  His most notorious involvement was with the Cottingley Fairy photographs which he endorsed in 1921. In a telegram to his collaborator Edward Gardner he wrote, ‘My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance ... We have had continued messages at séances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.’ [36]

Edwin Ray Lankester who had been such a keen identifier of fraud in the case of Henry Slade, bringing him to court and bearing witness to his wrongdoing was later to become involved in the infamous case of Piltdown Man. Indeed, two authors have even suggested that Piltdown Man was a fraud perpetuated than none other than Arthur Conan Doyle in order to fool Lankester and humiliate him (when the fraud was uncovered) as revenge for his unmasking of the 'palmistry' of Henry Slade (a friend of Doyle's). [37] Perhaps we owe Lankester the last word in this diversion, in 1880 Lankester declined requests to continue his research into spiritualism:

“The Spirit Medium,” he wrote in an 1880 letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, “is a curious and unsavoury specimen of natural history, and if you wish to study him, you must take him unawares . . . . I have done my share of the skunk-hunting; let others follow.” [38]

[Slide of Morgan] The debunking of spiritual phenomenon in 1876 by Lankester and others did not stop the tide of belief, and spiritualism has continued to be a force into the twenty-first century. Today, ‘visible signs’ and 'psychic phenomena' continue to occur and to fascinate the public. Spiritualism continues to be very profitable, especially for ‘psychics’ like Sally Morgan. She was recently challenged by the Guardian, Simon Singh and the Merseyside Skeptics to submit herself to scientific tests of her psychic skills. [39]

Naturally, she declined.


[1] Stocking, 2001: 121

[2] Cooper and Atterbury, 2001: 142-3


[4] Alfred Wallace. "1861 Letter from Wallace to Thomas Sims". The Alfred Russel Wallace Page hosted by Western Kentucky University.]

[5] Copy to be found at

[6] Quoted at

[7] Stocking, 2001: 122

[8] The Spiritualist, Sept. 22nd, 1876, Vol. IX, pp. 87-88. An account of the debate, from a supporter of spiritualism, is given in ‘The History of Spiritualism’ vol. 1 chapter 8 by Conan Doyle, available at

[9] Ross A. Slotten (2004). The Heretic in Darwin's Court: the life of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 357–58

[10] Stocking, 2001: 122

[11] British Library Tylor papers Add 46439 ff. 6

[12] Stocking, 2001: 126

[13] Stocking, George W. 1971. 'Animism in Theory and Practice: E.B. Tylor's Unpublished 'Notes on Spiritualism'', Man New series 6 (1) (1971), pp. 88-104.

[14] PRM Tylor papers Box 3: 12 ‘Notes on ‘Spiritualism ...’

[15] Stocking, 2001: 118



[18] Tylor 1869: 523-528; Stocking, 1971: 90

[19] Quoted in Stocking, 1971: 91

[20] Quoted in

[21] Stocking, 2001: 125

[22] Quoted in Stocking, 2001: 132

[23] Quoted in Stocking, 2001: 135-6

[24] Quoted in Stocking, 2001: 141-2

[25] Cyril Permutt, Beyond the Spectrum [Cambridge: Patrick Stephens, 1983], p. 17. []

[26] quoting from the Gale Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology: Frederick A. Hudson

[27] As an aside, it is interesting to note that Tylor later had a long correspondence with William Howitt’s son, Alfred, who had settled in Australia and became a renowned early anthropologist in Victoria. The surviving letters from this correspondence do not refer to the earlier acquaintance with other members of his family (Alfred himself had left England by 1852, probably before either his family or Tylor had evinced any interest in spiritualism).

[28] See as above.

[29] From Anna Tylor’s diaries, held at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

[30] Rolleston papers, Ashmolean Museum from Lane Fox to Rolleston dated August 24th and 29th 1876.

[31] See and [quote from second]

[32] see The Times 16 September 1876 page 7, issue 28736 column e

[33] quoted in

[34] The Times in April 27 1932 page 14 [quoted here]

[35] Dellamora, 2011: 79


[37] The Perpetrator at Piltdown by John Hathaway Winslow and Alfred Meyer, see also and NB this is not generally accepted though the real truth behind the Piltdown Man has still not be convincingly proven there are as many theories about the perpetuators as there were credulous witnesses to its initial authenticity.

[38] quoted in Milner 1996, copied at


Further reading

Cooper, Suzanne Fagence and Paul Atterbury, 2001 'Religion and Doubt' in Mackenzie, John M. [ed] The Victorian Vision London V&A Press

Dellamora, Richard. 2011 Radclyffe Hall: A life in the writing University of Pennsylvania Press

Richard Milner 1996 'Charles Darwin and Associates, Ghostbusters: When the scientific establishment put a spiritualist on trial, the co-discoverers of natural selection took opposing sides’ Scientific American: quoted in

Porrovecchio, Mark J. 2009 'The Curious Case of F.C.S. Schiller' Society of Psychical Research

George W. Stocking 2001 Delimiting Anthropology: Occasional Essays and Reflections Madison: University of Wisconsin

AP March 2013.

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