Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

Many of you interested in the history of mental mediumship are probably familiar with the cross-correspondences, a complex series of automatically-produced scripts generally referred to in discussions of survival of bodily death. The book discussed here, Arthur Balfour’s Ghosts: An Edwardian Elite and the Riddle of the Cross-Correspondence Automatic Writings (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2017), by Trevor Hamilton, is the best discussion of the subject available today.

Hamilton Arthur Balfour's Ghost

Trevor, who I have never had the pleasure to meet in person, but with whom I have corresponded, has honours degrees in History (Oxford University) and English Literature (University of London), as well as a Master’s degree (University of Sussex). He has published two previous books related to psychical research. These are Immortal Longings: F. W. H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2009) and Tell My Mother I’m Not Dead. A Case Study in Mediumship Research (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2012).

Here is an interview with the author.

Interview

Can you give us a brief summary of the book?

The book tells the story of the cross-correspondence automatic writings and their assessment over the years from 1901 to the present day. It describes the lives and careers of the main automatic writers, their first investigators, and the conclusions they came. More than 3,500 scripts were produced (mainly in the United Kingdom but sometimes abroad) from 1901-1936 by automatic writers who on some occasions did not know each other and were widely separated geographically. The scripts often contained fragmentary and allusive references to erudite literary and classical topics yet when put together appeared to make coherent sense. Alice Johnson, one of the central team of investigators defined these cross-correspondences as ‘independent references to the same topic found in the scripts of two or more writers’ and argued that this method had been adopted by the discarnate FWH Myers for two main reasons: to prevent the communications being attributed only to the automatic writer’s subconscious or to telepathic and clairvoyant contact with the living. The complex design, she and the other investigators asserted, could not reasonably be attributed to anyone alive and bore all the idiosyncratic characteristics of Myers himself.

Frederic Myers 4

Frederic W.H. Myers

There were two other claims made for the purposes behind the scripts. One was that May Lyttelton who died of typhus in 1875, whom Arthur Balfour (later UK Prime Minister) had loved, wanted to convince him of her post-mortem survival and her continued love for him. The other was that Henry, a child of one of the mediums, Winifred Coombe-Tennant, would grow up to be a Messianic-type figure who would contribute powerfully towards the cause of world civilisation, peace and order. In all, there were seven main post-mortem communicators who were supposed to have worked together to help get these purposes across:  F.W.H. Myers; Edmund Gurney; Henry Sidgwick (all three fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, and co-founders of the Society for Psychical Research and all dead by 1901; Annie Marshall, Myers’ platonic love who committed suicide in 1876;  two members of the aristocratic Lyttelton family, May and Laura who died in 1886; and Francis Balfour, Arthur Balfour’s brother and an outstanding embryologist, who died in a climbing accident in 1882.

Arthur Balfour

Arthur Balfour

What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of this book specifically?

I researched and wrote the first biography of FWH Myers which was published in 2009. To follow this up with a study of the cross-correspondences seemed only logical since a familiarity with his life and times was an essential precondition for trying to make sense of them. I am not a parapsychologist but I have an increasingly deep and sustained interest in the history of the Cambridge intellectuals who dominated, mainly for good, but sometimes with less positive outcomes, the early history of the Society for Psychical Research (Hamilton 2011, for example). I also felt that my honours degrees in History (Oxford) and English Literature (London) and my Master’s degree (Sussex) which contained relevant psychological and social science methodology, gave me some preparation for the task. The original investigators had translated all the original Latin (though I had studied Latin) and Greek and I was fairly well read in the poetry and prose of the period, so the material was, though enormous, was marginally less daunting than it might have appeared at first sight.

What motivated you to write this book?

I was particularly motivated, as with my book on Myers, to expose the superficial and uninformed nature of many of the comments that had been made about Myers and his colleagues and later about the cross-correspondence phenomena. A particular example of this is the way both cultural scholars and sceptics have used the SPR involvement with the hypnotist George Albert Smith and the scurrilous journalist Douglas Blackburn to unfairly discredit them (Hamilton 2015).

However, the over-arching motivation came from the death of my younger son Ralph in a car crash in 2002. I decided to set myself three questions: was there any evidence that well-qualified and educated people had studied and taken seriously the question of life after death and the related phenomena associated with it; if I personally sat with a number of mediums to try to contact Ralph, was there any evidence that I could take seriously; and were there any classic cases of alleged survival that seem to withstand the most robust critical assessment? From the first question came my book on Myers and the Society for Psychical Research. From the second question came my book on my personal investigation of mediumship (Hamilton 2012.) From the third came the current book. I was not able to work properly on these topics till I was fully retired at the end of 2006. Since then I have read as widely as I can in the history of psychical research and in current parapsychological research. My next book is an examination of the mediumship of Gladys Osborne Leonard and Geraldine Cummins (the Myers persona appears strongly in Cummins’ work) particularly in the light of our past and current notions of the nature of personal identity pre and post mortem. I must pay grateful tribute to the Perrott-Warrick Fund (managed by Trinity College Cambridge) which has helped with some of the research costs of several of these projects.

Why do you think your book is important and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Archie Roy’s book (2008) covers some of the same ground as mine. But he concentrated much more on the relationship between Winifred Coombe-Tennant and her son Henry (and on Henry’s remarkable career), and on putting into print large selections from the papers of Jean, Countess of Balfour, to make them widely available. The book is lively, intellectually robust, and of real value. But he did not develop and apply a detailed assessment methodology to the automatic scripts as I have done.

This is crucial since the scripts and the commentaries on them were written by individuals all of whom had been Myers’ personal friends, collaborators, or at least had some acquaintance with his reputation. They, therefore, strongly demanded an up to date and, as far as possible, an independent and impartial appraisal.  There were and still are several reasons for this. First, the astounding claims made for the scripts required that they be scrutinised with great care and balance.  Second, the complete body of material has never been studied in detail by later researchers because of its inaccessibility and convoluted nature. A complete set of scripts consists of thirty plus volumes and there are fewer than twenty sets in existence (Hamilton 2017). Therefore, there is always the suspicion that the original interpreters selected those items from the scripts that confirmed their prior belief in survival and, conversely, that critics of the cross- correspondences may never have engaged in sufficient detail with the material in order to come to an informed opinion.

For many reasons (particularly those of privacy and confidentiality) the names and details of some of the automatic writers were not revealed for many years. This led to an exaggerated emphasis on the independent creation of the material by automatic writers who appeared to have had no contact with each other. Through original research I have conclusively established for the first time the close nexus of formal and informal links that bound almost, though not all, the automatists together, and this has enabled a more rounded assessment of the writing.

Both the writers and the assessors of the scripts (apart from Leonora Piper the trance medium) were people of very high intellectual quality and public achievement but self-deception, confabulation, cognitive dissonance, vanity and wishful thinking are not just the prerogative of the ill-educated and ill-informed. It has been important in my evaluation to see whether such psychological drivers might have affected their assessment judgements.

For years people have delivered verdicts on the cross-correspondences based on extracts from books, and more rarely, on the reports in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. I have done three things which are original and can help to produce a more secure assessment of the phenomena. First, I have gone back to the full body of scripts and converted them into a searchable PDF format. This was a massive and tedious task but was the only way to make the material manageable and to deal with the criticism that the cross-correspondences had been produced by a combination of selective quotation, wishful thinking and literary coincidences. Second, I have provided a background, narrative and context for the production of the scripts, including the nature of the cross-correspondences, their content, and the complex symbolism alleged to be contained within them. Third, I have developed and applied a detailed set of assessment criteria to their assessment. I hope that this work will help anyone who wishes to form a more than superficial verdict for or against them and on their contribution to the survival versus living agent psi debate.

Bibliography and References

Hamilton, T. (2009). FWH Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Hamilton, T. (2011). FWH Myers and the Synthetic Society. Christianity and Psychical Research: a historical case study. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of The Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, University of Exeter, September 2011.

Hamilton, T. (2012). Tell My Mother I’m Not Dead. A Case Study in Mediumship Research. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Hamilton, T. (2013). F.W.H. Myers, William James, and Spiritualism. In C. Moreman, (Ed.), The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and around the World (Vol 1, pp. 97-114). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Hamilton, T. (2013). The cross-correspondence automatic writings and the spiritualists. In C. Moreman (Ed.), The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World (Vol. 2, pp. 265-282). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Hamilton, T. (2015). Frederic WH Myers, Psi Encyclopedia: https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/frederic-wh-myers

Hamilton, T. (2015). Smith and Blackburn. Psi Encylopedia: https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/smith-and-blackburn

Hamilton, T. (2017). The Cross-Correspondences. Psi Encyclopedia: https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/cross-correspondences

Hamilton, T. (2017). Arthur Balfour’s Ghosts: An Edwardian Elite and the Riddle of the Cross-Correspondence Automatic Writings. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Roy, A. (2008). The Eager Dead. A Study in Haunting. Brighton: The Book Guild.

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