Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Mediums and the Messages

By Linda Stratmann

Victorian séances were almost always performed in darkness, which provided the perfect conditions in which unscrupulous mediums could produce convincing illusions.

There was one significant exception to this, and it was the brainchild of American Henry Slade. Born in 1836 he was already an established medium when around 1860 he devised the slate-writing séance, which he probably based on an established conjuring trick. In its simplest form, and there were numerous variations, it required only a schoolroom slate, slate pencils or chalks, and a talent for legerdemain.

Henry Slade

Slade and his client would be seated at a table. The medium would put a small piece of slate pencil on the surface of a slate, and hold it under the table. As far as could be seen the slate was pressed flat against the underside of the table, and it was impossible for any human agency to write on it. After a while there would be the sound of the pencil moving, and when the slate was withdrawn a message from the spirits would be found.

Henry Slade Seance

Before long other mediums were taking up slate-writing. Some used double hinged slates with the scrap of pencil enclosed between the two sections which were then locked, while others had trick slates specially made, with false surfaces that could be moved to reveal writing beneath. Crucially however, the actual writing was never done when the sitter thought it was happening. The noise was produced by the medium scratching at a convenient surface. Either the writing was prepared in advance and the slates switched, or it was done surreptitiously during the séance.

Slade was highly successful and made substantial sums of money. He was at the height of his popularity when he came to London in 1876, and aroused the suspicions of Professor Edwin Ray Lankester of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and his surgeon friend Dr Horatio Donkin. Lankester and Donkin attended a séance and both noticed Slade’s arm moving as if writing on the slate which was lying on his lap before being slid under the table, while trying to muffle the noise of the pencil by talking or clearing his throat.  Before the slate could be hidden, Lankester quickly snatched it away, and revealed the writing. Unappeased by Slade’s explanations, Lankester and Donkin wrote to The Times denouncing the medium as a fraud. Slade and his assistant were arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud and obtaining money by false pretences.

Ray Lankester

There was a small sensation at Bow Street magistrates’ court when the conjurer John Maskelyne was called as a witness for the prosecution.  Slate-writing, he told the court was a very old trick, and proceeded to demonstrate. He placed a thimble on his finger with a pencil point attached, and used it to write a message on a slate under a table while the slate was held in place by the thumb of the same hand. He then showed how a message could be obliterated and revived by a sponge dipped in a chemical fluid. Warming to his theme, and ignoring the repeated protests of the defendants’ representatives, he then described how a medium with his hands secured could write a message with a pencil held in his mouth.

Evidence was also produced to show that the table used by Slade and made specially for him, was of an unusual construction, with moveable bars and ledges underneath, which it was believed would facilitate the deception. On 31 October Slade was found guilty under the 1824 Vagrancy Act of being a ‘rogue and a vagabond’ using a ‘subtle craft, means or device.’ He was sentenced to three months in prison with hard labour. Slade appealed, and due to a fault in the wording of the conviction it was quashed. A fresh summons was prepared, but before Slade could be re-arrested he had fled the country.

William Eglington

The best-known British slate-writer was William Eglinton. (Born Eglington) He first achieved fame as a medium in 1875, aged seventeen. Initially, he conducted dark séances involving levitation and the materialisation of his spirit control, Abdullah. Spiritualist Archdeacon Thomas Colley was present at such an event in 1876 and cut off a portion of the robe and beard of the ghostly figure. These were later found to match materials found in Eglinton’s portmanteau. This was not, however as one might imagine, a career-ending revelation. Colley, not wanting to bring disgrace to the spiritualist movement, decided not to act on his discovery and gave the medium the benefit of the doubt.

William Eglington with Abdulah
In 1882 Eglinton was accused of conspiring with theosophist Madame Blavatsky to commit a fraud. He had claimed that while on board the S.S. Vega from Ceylon he had written letters that were transported to a spiritualist circle in Calcutta by psychic means. It may have been as a reaction to this controversy that Eglinton, looking for some less detectable means of mediumship, turned to slate-writing, in which he enjoyed considerable success. In 1886 however the subject of slate-writing was examined in some detail by the Society for Psychical Research.

A young clerk, Samuel John Davey, had attended a number of séances with Eglinton, when he began to suspect that there was trickery involved. Rather than try to expose Eglinton directly, Davey decided to teach himself conjuring in order to show that all the manifestations of the slate-writer could be produced without any intervention by spirits. He then conducted a number of séances, which his sitters found wholly convincing and afterwards informed them that his results were achieved by conjuring. Davey’s experiments also highlighted how little the observation and memory of the sitters could be relied upon. His work, reported in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1887 sparked a furious debate. With letters to the Journal denouncing Eglinton as a fraud, spiritualists turned on Davey, accusing him of secretly being a medium. Several members of the SPR resigned in protest. Eglinton had been abroad, but on his return must have realised that even the world of slate-writing was too warm for him. He abandoned his career as a medium and took up journalism, in which he achieved notable success. He died in 1933, and his obituary in The Times makes no mention of his mediumship.

Davey, whose insight, enterprise and diligence had illuminated the dark surfaces of the slates, never completed his work. He died from typhoid in 1890 at the age of 27.

After a spell on the continent, which was not entirely free from controversy, Henry Slade returned to the United States, and was practising as a medium in New York, when he attracted the attention of the Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism. A Mr Henry Seybert, who had been a profound believer in spiritualism, had shortly before his death, gifted money to the University of Pennsylvania on condition that it appointed a commission, which, as one of its purposes was the investigation of spiritualism. Having no success with a Philadelphia medium, the commission sent for Henry Slade, and the results were such as could not have been anticipated by either Slade or the late Mr Seybert. 

The observers stated bluntly that whatever Slade might have done previously the manifestations they observed were ‘fraudulent throughout.’ It had not even been necessary to use any ‘elaborate method of investigation; close observation was all that was required.’ It was noticeable that general communications written by the spirits covered most of the slate and were well-written. On the other hand, where the spirit was answering a question put during the séance the message was brief and clumsily written. The conclusion was that Slade had prepared the long messages before the séance, substituting the written slate for a clean one. He had written the others while holding the slate under the table, concealing what he was doing with convulsive spasms of his body.

The Seybert report was published in 1887, and effectively destroyed Slade’s career. Unlike Eglinton he had no other means of making a living. He died in poverty in 1905.

The slate-writers were a curious diversion in the world of mediumship, but ultimately none of them was ever shown to be anything more than a clever and convincing conjuror.


The Case For and Against Psychical Belief, Carl Murchison, (ed), (Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1927) pp. 242-3
(Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to Investigate Modern Spiritualism, (Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Company 1887, p. 7)
Vagrancy Act, 1824 Chapter 83, 5 Geo 4
The Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism, Truesdell, John W, (G W Carleton and Co, New York, 1883)
The Possibilities of Mal-Observation, &c., from a Practical Point of View, Davey, S J, Journal of the SPR, January 1877 pp 8-44
Mr Eglinton, Journal of the SPR, June 1886 pp 282-3
Mr W. Eglington, The Times, 11 March 1933, p. 12.


Linda Stratmann is the author of thirteen non-fiction books and eleven novels, including the popular Frances Doughty series set in 1880s Bayswater.

An Unquiet Ghost: Mina Scarletti Mysteries book 3
In 1871 Brighton, a betrothed couple want to solve a family murder by finding a medium who can contact the dead man. They go to Mr Castlehouse, a slate-writer, who claims to receive messages from the spirits. Will they find the answer they seek? 

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