In our childhood it seems never to have occurred to anyone to organize and direct our eager young spirits, so full of curiosity and of restless energy, in a way to fit us for the life before us. Our six hours daily in school were, as I have said, a blank, or nearly so. It was the life out of school only that left its impress, and that life out of school was itself absolutely without any superior directing intelligence. The kindergarten was unknown. Athletics as organized scientific training of the body and mind was undreamed. Nor were we even taught to open our eyes on the fields and the sky, nor to read one word in the open pages of Nature that lay about us. We were taught nothing of the birds, the trees, the flowers, the grasses, the insects; nothing of the stars, the storms, the clouds, the sky; nothing of the village organized life even, of which we formed a part. To learn to read, to write, to cipher, by going to school six hours per day, nine months in the year up to sixteen or seventeen, with perhaps grammar and geography, that was the orthodox routine understood to have high and exclusive educational value. My education was in many ways better in those early years than that of many country boys, but in all the things a boy needs and really desires most to know, or to be able to do, I, like all the boys of my time, grew up undisciplined, untaught, and undirected. Such knowledge as I now have of the things I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell every day and moment of my life, knowledge of the element in which my being is immersed, knowledge of the sources and material of my daily thoughts and sensations was practically denied me, in the sensitive and receptive days of childhood. We were left to shift for ourselves, nor were we ever given the least knowledge of these things. Training of the eye, the hand, the muscles, now so carefully and scientifically worked out in the best schools, was in our day, and certainly in that remote hamlet, utterly unknown and undreamed. We were not taught to do well the simple movements of our plays or given the least knowledge of any part of the horizon in which we lived and moved and had our being.
Of course, we knew, and our parents knew, little of disease or of hygiene. The measles were about, and I heard that to catch the measles from anyone was to make them two cousins thereafter. My playmate Ed Smith, the tanner’s son, was down with the measles, and so I went to the Smiths, told Mrs. Smith my errand, and she ushered me into the sick chamber, where I bent down and deliberately took the breath of the little patient with his face crimson with fever, in order that we might be cousins. I had the measles all right, and I overheard my mother’s exclamations of astonishment that Mrs. Smith could have been guilty of deliberately exposing me to them. But the fact was, that in those days measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chicken pox were thought to be hardly less necessary in rearing a family than the three R’s. It was reasoned that people had to have these children’s diseases sometime or be often put out in later life in trying to dodge them; that they were less dangerous to child life than to adult life, and the time they consumed in childhood was less valuable. Every mother with the true ideals expected to see all her children through them all before they left home. It was a matter of some pride in our family, though our own mother never really courted the children’s diseases, that she had carried us through them all when we were little.
Centre Lisle was a quiet little hamlet. There were no murders or suicides, or fatal accidents or runaways, or neighborhood quarrels while we lived there. But one period of excitement, one week of bliss, broke the habitual monotony of the village. It was occasioned by the visit and lectures of a certain Dr. Moran.
Those were the days of the wide excitement created by the “Rochester Rappings.” Two bold, bright, and enterprising young women by the name of Fox, known in the wide literature of the excitement as the “Fox Girls,” suddenly discovered that the dead live and desire to communicate with the living, and were disclosing themselves to the Fox Girls by rappings in various parts of the Fox residence, and by table tippings and other similar phenomena which have since been multiplied in all parts of the world. The newspapers were filled with stories of wonderful and inexplicable revelations through those girls, and the Rochester Rappings became a national sensation. So far as I know, that was the original in this country of spiritism, always popularly miscalled “spiritualism.” The new faith gained many adherents among the more gullible of the people, and not a few in the little hamlet of Centre Lisle, to the disturbance of the serene orthodoxy of the two churches, Baptist and Congregational. Father and the other minister took note of this intrusive disturbance of the peace of Zion, and believing the whole thing to be a fraud, they two together concerted measures for exposing it. So, there appeared one day at our house as an expected guest this Dr. Moran.
He proved to be the most entertaining of men, and for a week I hung on his words. He had come to deliver a series of lectures in the town, exposing the frauds and deceptions of spiritualism in general, and of the Fox Girls in particular, of whose impostures he had made a special study. In the evenings he delivered a series of fascinating lectures, thronged by the townspeople and the whole countryside. He unraveled mystery after mystery, exposed fraud after fraud, in a clever and interesting way, and humorously disclosed the manifold traps into which the Fox Girls, wary as they were, had been skillfully baited. One of these snares was laid by a shrewd old teacher of theirs. She got a question asked by somebody, which would require the answering spirit to spell out the word scissors. Sure enough, the spirit spelled it “Sissors,” which was the way the Fox Girl, then in a totally unconscious trance as a medium, and wholly possessed by the “spirits,” always had misspelled the word in the old teacher’s school.
A distracted parent in another city, whose child was dangerously ill, sought the counsel of the Fox Girls as to its treatment and recovery. The gentleman was received at the Fox residence with every evidence of eager expectation. He had hardly announced himself before they told him they were expecting him, and he need not explain his errand, for they had already received a communication from the spirit land that he lived in such a such a city and had a sick child. They would immediately form a circle and get into communication with the world of spirits and learn what to do. The response came back that the child was better and would live and, sure enough, very soon a telegram was handed in at the front door addressed to the father, confirming the spirit message. It said the child was better. Before the father left, however, a change came over the faces of the Fox household. They began to look grave. They confided to him that they were oppressed. They feared there had been some mistake. They felt impelled to have another circle to make sure. This time the spirits spelled out, “The child is dead.” The father was about to take the next train home, when another telegram was handed him, confirming the spirit rappings by announcing the death of his child. Dr. Moran had traced the matter out and found that the first telegram announcing the improvement in the child had been received and opened secretly by the Fox Girls before the father had arrived, as it had been addressed to the father in care of the Fox Sisters. The sisters therefore knew just how to welcome the expected visitor. After the seance they caused the telegram, newly sealed, to be handed in by a servant who later confessed the fraud. But after a while a second telegram to the father was seized at the door by one of the Fox Sisters and opened. It announced the death of the child. This disconcerting news occasioned the second seance. And then this telegram in turn was sealed and fraudulently delivered by the same servant at the front door before the father got away. He left thoroughly convinced of the truth of spiritualism, not knowing that the telegram as a news carrier had outpaced the spirits in each case.
For his last night, Dr. Moran announced that he himself would give a series of “spiritual” manifestations in all respects as occult and as inexplicable as any spiritual phenomena that the Fox Girls or anyone else had produced. The evening came and the meeting house was jammed. In front of the pulpit was placed a long table covered with a big red cloth, reaching almost to the floor, and on the table were several burning candles. Behind the table sat the village smart boy, George Livermore, a lad of eighteen who had been reared in town and knew, as country villagers do, many skeletons in village closets and many family secrets. Dr. Moran in this lecture posed as a spiritist. As such he said there were few communities in which there could not be found one or more mediums responsive to all the spiritualistic phenomena. He had been looking about since his arrival in town and had found one in this humble lad who had hitherto been wholly unconscious of this truly divine endowment of power. He would now demonstrate by putting him into a state of trance, in which he would become the unconscious agent of the departed spirits who were hovering round, eager to get into communication with their old friends. He made passes. The boy’s eyes slowly closed, he turned pale, almost livid; the doctor expatiated on his pallor, his almost complete lack of consciousness, and for a while the doctor asked him questions about the wonderful spiritual world, and beautiful and appropriate responses were murmured back. At length he turned the excited audience loose on the young man, now under complete control, and the families inclined to spiritualism began to call up and ask questions of their dead relations. The ease and accuracy with which the boy rapped out the family secrets, without the movement of a facial muscle, has never, I venture to say, been excelled in the history of spiritual manifestations. The breathless audience became fascinated and almost credulous. At length the doctor requested anyone to ask the medium, now dead to the world, the date of any coin he happened to have in his pocket. He himself must see the coin as guarantee of good faith and against imposture. Several coins were handed up, one dating in the previous century. The doctor would pick up one of these, look it over, dilating volubly on spiritism the while, then suddenly and dramatically ask the medium the date of the coin in his closed hand. The boy, to save time, would make the figures in the air with his extended arm, always correctly. Finally, the spiritists in the audience began to think that the performance was certainly genuine, and that the spirits had really come to confound and expose Moran. At this expected juncture the doctor rose to true greatness. With a burst of eloquence, he defended his sincerity in opposing spiritism and, closing with a bold and splendid defiance, he called on the spirits one and all to come on, and if there was anything in spiritism let them perform if they could some prodigy of a spectacular kind that would confound himself, and convince this eager audience of his error or his imposture. Let them move, for instance, one of those candles from its place on the table, right in the sight of this intelligent and critical audience. The words were hardly out of his mouth before one of the candles shot ten feet up into the air. Pandemonium reigned, while Dr. Moran stood aghast, the picture of confusion and dismay. At last Dr. Moran recovered himself and quieted the audience. He went to the table, took all the candles off, removed the cloth, and disclosed the spring attached to a wooden hammer, the head of which fitted an auger hole right under the candle, and how a string which held it bent back, had, at the right moment, been cut by the boy medium with a knife under the table. He then explained the coin trick which required nothing more than that the medium should learn in advance ten words agreed upon between the two, representing the ten digits. Dr. Moran would note the date, weave the proper words, all of them familiar stock terms of spiritism, in their order into a few sentences, for he was extremely versatile, and the boy would write the date with his finger in the air. When the meeting broke up, spiritualism was dead in that town.
George Livermore had been having daily sessions in our house with Dr. Moran for a week. A bright, quick, confident boy, he learned his lesson thoroughly and acted it perfectly. The doctor closed his lecture by showing precisely how he had trained the boy and that his pallor was due to nothing but stage fright at the approach of the ordeal.
If my children have seen their father disposed to deride the occult, and even to express contempt, perhaps too freely, of people who take seriously their Fox Girls, which have since been many, and their Pallidenos and others, let them remember that early impressions are the most indelible, and that the boy is father to the man. My recollection is that the Fox Girls afterwards confessed. They had learned to snap audibly certain joints of the foot or perhaps the knee, when held in certain postures concealed by their dresses. At first the whole thing was a jest, they averred, but as they found how gullible people were, they went so far that they hardly dared retreat. Such was and still is in equal degree the gullibility of many of our fellow citizens, and not less of some distinguished professors, with a yellow streak of credulity and inexperienced with the wiles of the cunning.
The lesson has been widely useful to me. It was perhaps the first and most impressive of many that have taught me that the observations, reasoning, and verbal reports even of sincere people, untrained in accuracy of observation and statement—and very few are trained—are not to be relied upon. While most people are nearly veracious, few are able to be accurately truthful from lack of trained observation. Sensational neighborhood gossip, stories of adventure, explanations of natural phenomena, even of the simplest, to say nothing of the realm of the occult, are to be accepted with due reserve. Even the weather proverbs of our fathers are shown by the modern weather bureau to be utterly mistaken.
A Year of Shadow