Friday, September 29, 2023

Authors Take Sides on Spiritualism - 'Metropolitan' 1920 - A Guest Post by Bill Ectric

I bought this May 1920 issue of Metropolitan magazine on eBay, several years ago, in good condition, for $70. I was writing an article on Wadsworth Camp, the father of Madeliene L’Engle, and compiling a list of Camp’s stories that were published in vintage magazines. I found his “The Signal Tower” in this issue of the Metropolitan, but what caught my attention was the unrelated cover line:

Bernard Shaw   H.G. Wells   A. Conan Doyle   Sir Oliver Lodge   G.K. Chesterton and Sir William Barrett talk of SPIRITUALISM: Truth or Imposture?

I had to have it. The set-up is a classic trope: Six well-known individuals discuss the veracity of seances conducted by mediums, presented as three believers and three skeptics, with a couple of twists.

The piece is written by Joseph Gollumb (1881-1950), an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent, based in New York, who wrote for the New Yorker, the Evening News, The Nation and more. He also wrote non-fiction books on espionage and crime, young adult fiction, and novels.

It is illustrated with caricatures of the participants by Tony Sarg (1880 - 1942), professional puppeteer and designer of moving displays for Macy’s windows and parades. His artwork appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the New York Times, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Metropolitan, and others. From May 1921 to January1923, Sarg co-created at least seventeen animated shorts, produced by Herbert M. Dawley. This places Sarge alongside Walt Disney and Max Fleischer as early cartoon animators. 

Gollomb leads the discussion on Spiritualism with Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), the English physicist. Lodge is the perfect candidate for erasing the line between science and mysticism in the public eye. His lectures on electromagnetic radiation, and his contribution to the development of radio, identified him with invisible currents and wireless communication, distant cousins of ectoplasm and telepathy. Lodge acknowledges that he had doubts at first, and he exposed some fake mediums along the way, but he was convinced by a séance in which his deceased aunt spoke to him, in his aunt’s voice coming through the medium, and spoke of things known only to his aunt and himself. When Gollomb asks for further proof, Lodge cites a complicated study, on file with the Society for Psychical Research, that involved mediums sending snippets of messages to someone, and the snippets are in Latin, and make no sense until linked together by still another person. “I certainly do not recommend psychical research to the weak-minded,” says Lodge.

H. G. Wells (1866-1946) doesn’t buy any of it. He derides mediums as carnival charlatans and ascribes belief in Spiritualism by educated men like Oliver Lodge to gullibility. He posits that scientists who spend all their time in laboratories studying controlled experiments are not jaded enough to detect a “slight-of-hand” hustle. On the other hand, Wells predicts a future of exciting new achievements like space travel and wireless communication, all explainable by science yet to come, in keeping with hard science fiction.

Sir William Barrett (1884 - 1925), born in Jamaica to English missionary parents, became Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland. He was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in England. After receiving considerable guff from other scientists, Barrett visited the United States and formed the American Society for Psychical Research. He was interested in Franz Mesmer’s theory that all living things contain an invisible aura or force known as “animal magnetism,” a concept that encompasses the unseen forces of biology, psychology, physics, and the nebulous spirit.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), playwright, is another solid doubter. He makes a humorous quip on Ouija board parlor games, “If the dead are capable of such drivel, it is indecent to encourage them to continue.”

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), like Oliver Lodge, suffered the loss of a son during World War I. Both men later sought to communicate with their deceased sons. While some people infer that the death of his son drew Doyle into Spiritualism, Winget points out in Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light, 1887-1920, that Doyle had expressed his paranormal beliefs prior to his son’s death, and the same can be said for Lodge. Doyle seems to receive more flack for his beliefs than Lodge nowadays, probably because Doyle is popular and fun to read. Trivia buffs take glee in knowing how the creator of Sherlock Holmes was fooled by the Cottingley Fairy girls.

The last of the “skeptics” is G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the cigar-chomping author, radio personality, Christian apologist, and creator of the crime-solving priest Father Brown as portrayed by Mark Williams on the BBC. Chesterton enjoyed public debates with George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and others. Wells once called himself an atheist, and Bernard Shaw is usually described in essays as either a mystic or an atheist, but mostly an atheist, so Mr. Chesterton pulled off a mean feat by getting himself included on their side of the scales (see illustration by Tony Sarg), while yet telling the interviewer straight out of the gate that he believes in miracles and spirits. His beef with Spiritualism is that it opens the door to demons as well as spirits, but he says it in a more abstract way. This is a solid ending by Gollomb, making the article enticing and enigmatic but not too threatening; each reader can take what they want from it. Before television came into every home, magazines were staples of entertainment for the bourgeoning demographic of churchgoing families who like a good ghost story.