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

Some of you probably have heard about the Nineteenth-Century table turning studies of Agénor de Gasparin. This is the topic of one of my recent papers:

Table turning in the early 1850s: The séance reports of Agénor de Gasparin. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2018, 32, 702-741.


“The phenomena of table turning flourished during the 1850s, providing for many people a context for belief in spirit action, and for the development of explanations such as unconscious muscular movements and the exteriorization of nervous forces from the sitters. This paper consists of the presentation of excerpts from the classic study of these phenomena by Agénor de Gasparin, who reported his work on the subject in his book Des Tables Tournantes (1854, 2 volumes, translated into English in 1857). De Gasparin believed that unconscious muscular action could not explain the movements of tables, and postulated the emission of a force from the sitters around the table to account for the movements. I present a long excerpt from de Gasparin’s book in which he described the phenomena he obtained, preceded by a short review of interest in table phenomena in the 1850s, and followed by critiques showing the general skepticism about these phenomena during and after de Gasparin’s lifetime.”

Agenor de Gasparin 2

Agénor de Gasparin


De Gasparin Tables Tournantes

de Gasparin Science

 The purpose of my article is to remind current readers of de Gasparin’s influential work on table-turning, a phenomenon, and a social practice popular in some places during the 1850s. “While these séances have been discussed in various historical overview works . . . de Gasparin’s work does not seem to be well-known today . . . Furthermore, these studies deserve to be better-known because they were very influential at the time they appeared. Although there are many reports and discussions of table phenomena throughout the late Nineteenth Century and later . . . . , I focus my comments in most of this paper to material published in the 1850s. I extend the later discussion at the end of this paper to the reception of the work in later periods.”


Table tipping

 The paper is divided in four main sections. These are an overview of table-turning writings during the 1850s, a discussion of de Gasparin’s life and work, an excerpt from de Gasparin’s book reporting his seances, and a general discussion of critiques of his work and of his influence.

Roubaud Danse Tables


Table Turning and Table Talking: Containing Detailed Reports of an Infinite Variety of Experiments Performed in England, France, and Germany, with most marvellous results; also, minute directions to enable every one to practise them and the various explanations given of the phenomena, by the most distinguished Scientific Men of Europe ... Second Edition With Professor Faraday's Experiments and Explanation.

“Count Agénor Etiénne de Gasparin (18101871), was born in Orange, France, and later lived in Switzerland . . .  An obituarist referred to him as a noble and chivalrous man who showed “grace that charmed his adversaries as well as his friends” . . . He held various political appointments, such as a member of the Chamber of Deputies from Bastia (Corsica) in 1842. Furthermore, de Gasparin was interested and active in issues related to economics, history, politics, and religion. A biographer presented de Gasparin as a man always willing to fight for causes, such as the abolition of slavery.”

Borel Compte Agenor de Gasparin

de Gasparin L'Egalite

de Gasparin Uprising

On one occasion, de Gasparin and the sitters explored “divination” by the table. “On the 20th of September, then, we desired to put to the proof the pretended faculty of divination ascribed to the tables. For this purpose, we submitted to the one around which we were sitting, and which operated to admiration, the most elementary question assuredly, that can be proposed to a spirit. We placed three nuts in the pocket of one of the experimenters; the table, interrogated as to their number, promptly struck nine blows!”

Some attempts at table moving were made without the contact of the hands of the sitters. De Gasparin wrote: “Choosing a moment when the table was impelled by an energetic and truly spirited rotation, we all raised our hands at a given signal; then, maintaining them united by means of the little finger, and continuing to form the chain at about an inch above the table, we pursued our course, and, to our great surprise, the table also pursued its course, making thus three or four turns!”

On another occasion, the record reads: “Let us return to the demonstration par excellence—the elevation without contact. We began by accomplishing it three times. Then, as it was suggested that the presence of witnesses exercised a more certain influence over a small table than a large one, over five operators than ten, we caused a round table, made of spruce, to be brought in, and which the chain reduced by onehalf, sufficed to put in rotation. Whereupon, the hands being raised, and all contact having ceased, the table elevated itself perpendicularly seven times at our command.”

In the conclusion I stated:

“De Gasparin’s work was ignored by many, particularly by strong defenders of the unconscious movement explanation. While the reports could have been more detailed, something not common at the time, the critics ignored aspects of de Gasparin’s results inconsistent with unconscious movements and simple fraud explanations.”

“Several commentators on de Gasparin’s work—Delondre, Figuier, and Podmore—raised the issue of fraud. While this has to be considered, it is important to recognize that there was no actual evidence for such an explanation. But as a consequence of this situation, the work was not generally accepted, something quite common in the history of physical mediumship and other areas of psychical research.” 

“Regardless of evidential considerations, de Gasparin’s work was certainly important in many ways. He contributed to rescuing table turning from the casual discussions in the press and popular books, and from the “learned” attempts to reduce all phenomena related to tables to delusion and unconscious muscular movements. It is less clear, however, how influential he was on later studies of table movements . . .” Nonetheless, he clearly influenced Marc Thury, and William Crookes cited him later.

“This work presented important instances of tests attempting to counter objections empirically, and emphasizing phenomena inconsistent with the unconscious movement explanations of others. While a few conducted tests to see if they could support this hypothesis (e.g., Faraday 1853), many others just accepted the argument without empirical examination (e.g., Chevreul 1854).”

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