Science vs. Levitation

There Was a Time When More than Tables Were Up in the Air

The most celebrated levitation in recorded history took place on the Sea of Galilee some two thousand years ago and was witnessed by only a few humble fishermen.  Science discreetly smiles at such fables.

Legend has it that on October 4, 1630, Joseph of Cupertino, an Italian monk, was assisting in a procession honor­ing St. Francis of Assisi when he suddenly was lifted into the sky and hovered there for some time before a crowd. Upon descending, he was so embarrassed that he ran to his mother’s house and hid. It was the first of many “flights” that Joseph would experience while apparently in a trance state, or in a state of religious ecstasy or rapture. Joseph (1603-1663) was later canonized as a saint.

Levitations were reported with other saints, including St. Dunstan (918-988), St. Francis of Assisi (1186-1226), St. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), and St. Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562). The latter al­legedly soared over the trees with his hands crossed over his chest as hundreds of birds gathered around him. The phenomenon has also been reported with a number of Eastern mystics.

Science superciliously smirks at such religious superstition.

During the 1850s, there were numerous stories about heavy tables being levitated by spirits working through me­diums, and spelling out messages. The tables would hover off the floor and tilt one time for each letter of the alpha­bet, or the sitters would recite the alphabet and the table would tilt or turn at a certain letter. Judge John W. Ed­monds, a justice of the New York Supreme Court, and Dr. Robert Hare, a professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, were among a number of distinguished men and women who studied and attested to the phenomenon.

Science condescendingly snickered at such spiritualistic nonsense.

During the 1860s, stories circulated about levitations, spirit communication, and other strange phenomena sur­rounding Daniel Dunglas Home (pronounced “Hoom”), an American who had been born in Scotland in 1833, and had become a celebrated medium.

The most spectacular levitation purportedly took place on December 16, 1868 at the London mansion of Lord Lindsay and was witnessed by Lord Lindsay, Lord Adare, and Captain Charles Wynne. They reported seeing Home walk out a window on the third floor, float to the window of an adjoining room and re-enter there.

On March 4, 1869, Adare, Wynne, and Adare’s father, the Earl of Dunraven, accompanied Home on a tour of the ruins of Adare Abbey. There they observed Home leave the ground and float horizontally for, according to Adare, “at least ten or twelve yards.”

Science arrogantly sneered at the preposterous stories.

One of those sneering scientists was Professor William Crookes, a distinguished physicist and chemist, later knighted for his contributions to science, including the discovery of the element thallium and the invention of the Crookes tube, a high-vacuum tube which contributed to the discovery of the x-ray and television. Early in 1870, Crookes set out to prove that Home was a fraud. He opined that the increased employment of scientific methods would drive the “worthless residuum of spiritualism” into the unknown limbo of magic and necromancy.

But after 28 sittings with Home over nearly a three-year period, Crookes announced that he observed Home being levitated on three occasions—once while Home was sitting in an easy chair, once while kneeling on a chair, and once while standing up. “On each occasion, I had full opportunity of watching the occurrence as it was taking place,” Crookes detailed, pointing out that he ran his hands under Home’s feet to be sure there were no invisible supports of any kind.

Crookes also reported hearing spirit voices and witnessing floating tables, luminous “spirit hands,” and a floating accordion with beautiful music coming from it. In one sitting, Ellen Crookes, his wife, was levitated while sitting in a chair.

Crookes referred to Home and his wife “being levitated” rather than levitating themselves, as he came to under­stand that spirits were doing the lifting. In fact, when being levitated in the upright position, Home’s arms were usu­ally rigid and drawn above his head, as if he were grasping invisible hands. When he went horizontal, it was as if invis­ible hands were supporting his body.

It was further explained that Home could not be levitated at will. There had to be harmonious conditions. There were many sittings in which no phenomenon took place, apparently because of negative conditions. And it is why Home was levitated on only three of the 28 observations by Crookes.

Science now diplomatically scoffed at one of their own. It was assumed that Crookes had been the victim of a clever hoax.

“It is idle to attribute these results to trickery, for I would [point out] that what I relate has not been accom­plished at the house of a medium, but in my own house, where preparations have been quite impossible,” Crookes de­fended himself. “A medium, walking into my dining room, cannot, while seated in one part of my room with a num­ber of persons keenly watching him, by trickery make an accordion play in my own hand when I hold it keys downward, or cause the same accordion to float about the room playing all the time. He cannot introduce machinery which will wave window curtains or pull up Venetian blinds eight feet off, tie a knot in a handkerchief and place it in a far corner of the room, sound notes on a distant piano, cause a card-plate to float about the room, raise a water bot­tle and tumbler from the table, make a coral necklace rise on end, cause a fan to move about and fan the company, or set in motion a pendulum when enclosed in a glass case firmly cemented to the wall.”

But why such odd phenomena? The spirits explained to Crookes that they were experimenting with manipulating matter from their side, just as Crookes was experimenting on his side. In one sitting, Crookes overheard one spirit communicator giving instructions to another spirit communicator on how to effect a particular phenomenon.

Crookes was defended by Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution. Wallace had been present at the Crookes’ home for one of the sittings in which a table was levi­tated. The two famous scientists got on their hands and knees under the hovering table, but were unable to find any natural explanation.

Now, science scoffed at science.

“I never said it was possible, I only said it was true.” Crookes retaliated before retreating back to orthodox science.

Around the same time that Crookes first heard the stories about Home, William Stainton Moses, an Anglican min­ister and English master in University College, London, was also reading about them in a book written by Lord Adare. Moses called it the “dreariest twaddle” he had ever come across. However, in 1872, Moses reluctantly began develop­ing transcendental powers similar to Home. Serjeant Cox, a lawyer, described the swaying and rocking of a heavy ma­hogany table in the presence or Moses and seeing Moses lifted from the floor and onto the table, then lifted from the table to a sofa.

Initially, Moses thought it was the work of the devil and wanted nothing to do with it, but communicating spirits informed him that the levitations and other physical phenomena were simply a way of making themselves known so that they could impart some higher teachings through him. Moses developed into an automatic writer and over the next 20 years penned several books of profound wisdom from his spirit guides, much of it in conflict with his beliefs.

Frederic W. H. Myers, a Cambridge scholar who co-founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882, attended one of Moses’ séances and reported that a table, untouched by any hands, rose from the floor and touched his throat and chest three times, and then, “I was three times raised on to the table, and twice levitated in the corner of the room.”

Even though the SPR was formed for the purpose of thoroughly investigating paranormal phenomena, main­stream science wanted nothing to do with findings that seemed contrary to natural law and continued to frown on re­ports of levitations and spirit communication.

Perhaps the spirits decided there was no point in further levitating humans, or possibly there were too few who possess whatever it takes to be levitated, as there is not much in the way of human levitation reported by credible ob­servers after Home and Moses. However, the levitation of tables and other objects continued through the first three decades of the 1900s. Dr. William J. Crawford, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Ireland’s Belfast University, be­gan investigating the mediumship of 16-year-old Kathleen Goligher in 1914. The phenomena surrounding the young girl included communicating raps and table levitations.

In his 1918 book, On the Threshold of the Unseen, Sir William Barrett, professor of physics at Royal College in Dublin, tells of joining Crawford in one of Crawford’s many sittings with the Goligher circle. At first, they heard knocks and messages were spelled out as one of the sitters recited the alphabet. Barrett then observed a floating trumpet, which he tried unsuccessfully to catch. “Then the table began to rise from the floor some 18 inches and re­mained suspended and quite level,” Barrett wrote. “I was allowed to go up to the table and saw clearly no one was touching it, a clear space separating the sitters from the table.”

Barrett put pressure on the table to try to force it back to the floor. He exerted all his strength but was unable to budge it. “Then I climbed on the table and sat on it, my feet off the floor, when I was swayed to and fro and finally tipped off,” Barrett continued the story. “The table of its own accord now turned upside down, no one touching it, and I tried to lift it off the ground, but it could not be stirred; it appeared screwed down to the floor.”

When Barrett stopped trying to right the table, it righted itself on its own accord. Apparently, the spirits were having a bit of fun with Barrett as he then heard “numerous sounds displaying an amused intelligence.”

Somewhat similar folly had been observed by Crookes on April 12, 1871, during a sitting with Home, when sitter Frank Herne was carried out of his chair, floated across the room, and then dropped at the other end of the room.

Barrett described the medium and the small family group as “uncritical, simple, honest, kind-hearted people,” and he was certain that what he had experienced was beyond any conjuring. “That there is an unseen intelligence behind these manifestations is all we can say, but that is a tremendous assertion, and if admitted destroys the whole basis of materialism,” he concluded his discussion of the case.

Crookes, Myers, Wallace, and numerous other researchers had recognized that mediums were exuding a strange foamy substance from various orifices of the body that seemed to be responsible for producing various physical phe­nomena. With some mediums, it was very apparent and could even be photographed. With others, however, it was more of a vapory aura around the medium’s body. This substance came to be called ectoplasm. Through much experi­mentation Crawford discovered that “psychic rods” emanating from mediums and made up of this ectoplasm were re­sponsible for the levitations.

During his experiments with the Goligher circle, Crawford began communicating with spirit entities, one of whom said he was a medical man when on earth and that his primary function was to look after the health of the young medium. This spirit explained to Crawford that two types of substances were used in the production of the phe­nomena. One was taken in large quantities from both the medium and the sitters, then returned to them at the close of the séance. The other substance, apparently the ectoplasm (although never given a name by Crawford) was taken exclusively from the medium in minute quantities and could not be returned to her as its structure was broken up. It was pointed out that it came from the interior of the medium’s nerve cells and if too much were taken she could suf­fer serious injury.

Some of the communication took place through Goligher’s voice mechanism while she was in trance while much of it came through raps and table tilting. Crawford came to see the experimentation as a joint venture with the spirit “operators.” He soon realized that these “operators” didn’t understand much about the scientific aspects of the phe­nomena. “I am convinced that the operators know next to nothing of force magnitudes and reactions,” Crawford wrote in his 1918 book, The Reality of Psychic Phenomena. “Their idea as to the prime cause of the phenomena is ‘power.’”

On one occasion, a clairvoyant joined in the circle and told Crawford that she could see “a whitish vapory sub­stance, somewhat like smoke,” forming under the surface of the table and increasing in density as it was levitated. She could see it flowing from the medium in sort of a rotary motion. From other sitters, she could see thin bands joining into the much larger amount coming from the medium. She also saw various spirit forms and spirit hands manipulating the “psychic stuff.”

Crawford brought in a scale large enough to hold the medium while she was sitting in her chair. He discovered that when a table was being levitated, the weight of the table was transferred to the medium through the psychic rods. Most of the time, the transfer of weight would be a few ounces short of the weight of the table. Further experi­mentation revealed that the extra weight was being transferred to the sitters in the room, who might have furnished small amounts of the “psychic force.”

“I have come to the general conclusion from the results of my experimental work, and from observations of the circle extending over two and a half years, that all the phenomena produced are caused by flexible rod-like projections from the body of the medium; that these rods are the prime cause of the phenomena, whether they consist of levita­tions, movements of the table about the floor, rappings, touchings, or other variations,” Crawford stated.

Some of Crawford’s findings, such as the weighing of the medium, were objective and scientific. However, other aspects of it were based on things that were purportedly communicated by spirits or seen by a clairvoyant.

Thus, science sneered again.

In 1922, Dr. E. E. Fournier d’Albe had 20 sittings with the Goligher circle and observed no phenomena similar to what Crawford had reported. Crookes and other researchers had come to realize that too much skepticism causes a negative environment that defeats the production of phenomena, or to look at it another way, if the spirits didn’t like a particular person they simply refused to perform. That may very well have been the case with Fournier d’Albe, as other researchers later reported phenomena similar to what both Crawford and Barrett had witnessed.

But science wanted nothing more to do with such unreliable and unrepeatable phenomena. Apparently, the spir­its went away frustrated and decided there was no point in further demonstrating their existence to a doubting world.

And so, science still smiles, smirks, snickers, scoffs, and sneers.


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