Cornhill Magazine,  7 (1863), 706–19.


[J Fitzjames Stephen]


Essay, Dialogue


Spiritualism, Periodicals, Superstition, Supernaturalism, Charlatanry, Scientism, Telegraphy, Methodology, Matter Theory, Eschatology, Unbelief, Class

    Complains that in 'some quarters' the 'remarkable inference' has arisen that 'the cornhill magazine [is] a ghostly organ, favouring the pretensions of spirit-rappers and others of the same or analogous persuasions', and insists that the 'Magazine, the object of which is to inform and amuse the public', as well as 'the persons connected with the management of the magazine', remain resolutely disinterested on the matter. Prompted by the recent publication of William Howitt's History of the Supernatural, Daniel D Home's Incidents in My Life, and Robert D Owen's Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, Stephen proposes 'to consider in the present paper, what opinion a person of ordinary common sense would form of Spiritualism'. (706) Inverting the 'usual order', and beginning by 'stating the conclusions which the writer personally draws from a pretty careful perusal of these books and other publications of the same kind', Stephen states unequivocally that he 'does not believe a single word of them from one end to the other' (707). Howitt and Owen both fail to give 'sufficient weight to the amount of simple lying there is in the world' (708), although 'it must in honesty be admitted that a considerable number of the stories told', especially those by or about Home, 'cannot be explained away to any purpose. They must be accepted, or rejected on the broad ground of their inherent incredibility' (711). Even though both Robert Bell and James M Gully are 'credible witnesses' who 'affirm that they saw a man float in the air' [as recorded in , CM1/2/2/3], the 'writer of the present article has no hesitation in saying, No, I do not believe it'. If, however, the 'question is to be really considered, the author, however unwillingly, must drop the impersonal tone' and 'get into the witness-box and cross-examine himself'. (713) In this legalistic dialogue, Stephen asserts that 'in common with all educated men, I have an interest in physical science' which has 'performed solid services' in 'explaining [...] the order of the universe', and has 'ennobled and purified the understanding, and freed it from every sort of degrading superstition'. In this perspective, spiritualistic phenomena would be worthy of belief only if they could be made to accord with 'the ordinary [...] working apparatus' of the known order of things; 'If a spiritual telegraph is established which habitually anticipates electricity [...] if, in short, the spirits are harnessed to the wheels of life and become part of its recognized machinery'. (715) Although, with the endeavours of Home, 'the spirit-rappers have made out a case for scientific enquiry' (716), it must still be remembered that all 'notions about spirits are derived entirely from observations on matter,—matter is the hidden external cause to which we refer our sensations', and there is 'no evidence [...] to show that there are things called ghosts flying about in the air' (717). Spiritualism teaches that 'atheism and materialism are to be rejected', but it will 'set up something instead which is, to my mind, far more dreary and repulsive than blank unbelief. Men, when they die, become, it appears, miserable things', and, although endowed with numerous new powers, 'are so stupid, that [...] they never even hit upon the clumsy plan of the raps and the alphabet till a Yankee Quaker suggested it' (718). By the end of the article, Stephen is 'irresistably impelled to say that, even if true, the whole affair is at most a witches' sabbath' from 'the idiots who rap to those who are idle enough to listen' (719).

© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005 - 2020

Printed from Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: An Electronic Index, v. 4.0, The Digital Humanities Institute <> [accessed ]