Cornhill Magazine,  2 (1860), 211–24.

Stranger than Fiction

[Robert Bell]




Natural Law, Belief, Spiritualism, Charlatanry, Supernaturalism, Wonder, Class, Psychology

Publications cited:

Herschel 1830

    In a preliminary footnote William M Thackeray avows, 'As Editor of this Magazine, I can vouch for the good faith and honourable character of our correspondent, a friend of twenty-five years' standing', but he allows that 'readers are [...] free to give or withhold their belief' (211n.). Bell begins by noting that scepticism is 'one of the safe and cautious characteristics of the English people' (211). He nevertheless reminds the reader that 'in Shakespeare's time the sun was believed to go round the earth', and, rebuking the 'intellectual pride' of the nineteenth century, asserts, 'who shall presume to say that there is nothing more to be learned in time to come?' (212). Conscious that he is 'not addressing the initiated' (213), Bell gives 'the driest and most literal account' of his experiences at several séances during which various pieces of furniture exhibited spontaneous movement. He rejects the accusation that these phenomena are merely 'illogical absurdities' perpetrated by 'trickery or imposition' (215). Although 'they may be the unconscious work of the imagination' (223), we cannot refuse 'to receive any facts, except such as shall appear to us likely to be true' (224). Rather, it is 'the province of men of science to investigate alleged phenomena irrespective of extrinsic incidents' (215). Bell gives a sympathetic account of the notorious American medium Daniel D Home, who he describes as 'exceedingly modest in his self-assertion, considering how sorely he is tempted to put on airs of mystical egotism'. He also comments that 'people of the highest rank [...] seem to be impelled by a much more eager passion for the marvellous than the working bulk of the population—perhaps, because they have more idle time on their hands'. (219)

See also:

Oppenheim 1985, 48

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