Did famed orator Robert Green Ingersoll communicate posthumously through a spiritualist medium to recant his atheism? Published texts claim just such a visitation and recantation, but were they authentically written by him?
Spiritualist mediums—those who purport to communicate with the dead—use many approaches to convince the credulous of their ability. Many have been caught cheating when spirits purportedly produce physical phenomena such as slate writing, paintings, vocalizations, and “materializations,” as well as photography and other effects.
The great magician Harry Houdini (1874–1926) spent his last years exposing spiritualist fraud. After his death, several mediums claimed to have contacted his repentant spirit. One, Arthur Ford, was later shown to be a clever fraud artist (Nickell 1991, 57–58). In 1969, I sat with a medium in a séance I had arranged for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. In the dimly lit Toronto studio, the medium went speedily into a “trance,” then vocalized an implicitly apologetic speech, supposedly from Houdini in the spirit realm but actually a most unconvincing bit of fakery (Nickell 2004, 6).
One case I investigated supposedly involved an otherworldly Abraham Lincoln communicating by one of the two types of alleged spirit writing, slate writing—a “direct” form in which the entity itself wields the chalk. This occurred at a late-nineteenth-century séance conducted by fraudulent medium P.L.O.A. Keeler. In the brief text, “Lincoln” endorsed spiritualism and Keeler himself. However, not only was the scrawled message not in Lincoln’s handwriting, but the text contained a grammatical error (“should of” for “should have”) that Lincoln, the eloquent wordsmith, could scarcely have been guilty of making, and there were additional indicators of inauthenticity (Nickell 2004).
Another allegedly reformed disbeliever, according to one Keeler séance, was famed orator Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899). His “signature” was among a group of facsimile signatures—supposedly from spirits (of mostly now-obscure spiritualists)—but actually attributable to the artistic hand of Keeler (Nickell 2004, 7). (Keeler was subsequently caught cheating—appropriately enough—by one of Houdini’s undercover agents [Kalush and Sloman 2006, 465–466].)
Ingersoll also allegedly made after-death contact by means of the other type of reputed spirit writing: “automatic writing.” Ingersoll was a tempting target for spiritualists. Although a confirmed atheist, he had cordial relations with many American spiritualists (Smith 1990, 344–345; Nickell 1999). His acknowledgment of the “other side” would have been greatly valued—if believed.
A version of the “Ingersoll” message first appeared in the June 1903 issue of The Sermon (a fact called to my attention by CFI libraries director Timothy Binga. See figure 1), a spiritualist magazine published in Toronto by B.F. Austin, an excommunicated Methodist preacher and spiritualist convert. The message’s recipient later said it was received in a somewhat “crude manner” and soon produced a more polished communication. This was published as a twenty-three-page pamphlet titled A Message from Robert G. Ingersoll Transmitted by Automatic Writing Through a Philadelphia Psychic (1904).
Asked by the psychic medium to explain how he communicated, “Ingersoll” replied in part:
The pencil you are now holding is guided by my thoughts, but it is your physical strength which I use to move the pencil. The writing is inspired by me and I know that the work is as nearly automatic as many inventions worked by mortals.
You hold the pencil and call a guide; the guide simply places their [sic] hand over yours to start the forces you possess into motion. The thought force we possess keeps the pencil moving until we have finished the work or your own mind becomes active. . . . (A Message . . . 1904, 3–4)
As this case indicates, many attribute automatic writing to spirits or other entities. In one famous instance, Pearl Lenore Curran of St. Louis discovered in 1913 that she was apparently taking dictation from a spirit. As her Ouija board’s pointer spelled out: “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come—Patience Worth, my name.” Curran soon found that “Patience” could communicate by speaking through Curran’s own voice or by controlling her fingers as she typed. Alas, however, there was no evidence to confirm Patience’s claim that she was born in England in 1649 or that, at age forty-five, she was killed in America by Indians. Investigator Milbourne Christopher (1970, 129) concluded that Curran had “discovered not a spirit but a way to express herself.”
As another example, Swiss medium Hélène Smith (real name Catherine Elise Muller, 1861–1929) conducted séances in which she became entranced, spoke in tongues, wrote in Sanskrit, and channeled a spirit guide named Leopold as well as the spirit of the Italian sorcerer Cagliostro (for which she spoke in a deep voice). She made “astral visits” to Mars and produced automatic writing in an alleged Martian language (Guiley 1991, 553). However, that language proved to be structurally related to French, and an investigator who studied her for many years—Theodore Flournoy (1963, 44)—concluded:
No one dares tell her that her great invisible protector is only an illusory apparition, another part of herself, a product of her subconscious imagination; nor that the strange peculiarities of her mediumistic communications—the Sanskrit, the recognizable signatures of deceased persons, the thousand correct revelations of facts unknown to her—are but old forgotten memories of things which she saw or heard in her childhood.
I once received a letter from a man who claimed to be in Ouija-board communication with ancient entities. The man requested I investigate his claim, and I did agree to test him at his own expense. I proposed to use a Ouija-style board on which the letters were scrambled and which would be hidden from his view during the test, predicting that he would thereby only spell gibberish. I never heard from him again.
Automatic writing is produced while one is in a dissociated state. It is a form of motor automatism, or unconscious muscular activity, the cause not only of Ouija-board planchette movement but also of such phenomena as table tipping, “trance” painting or music composition, dowsing, and so on. It is also responsible for some impulsive acts. (A second category, sensory automatism, includes apparitions, dreams, hallucinations, certain inspirations, etc. See Guiley 1991, 45–48; Gardner 1957, 109.)
Ingersoll vs. “Ingersoll”
But is the “Ingersoll” automatic writing merely the product of another imaginative person’s fantasy? To assess its authenticity, I spent many hours comparing it with genuine Ingersoll selections, settling on one that was as seemingly comparable to the questioned text as I could find (Ingersoll 1887). The results were interesting.
Here is an authentic passage from Ingersoll (from his “A Tribute to Henry Ward Beecher” [1887, 421–422]):
All there is of leaf and bud, of flower and fruit, of painted insect life, and all the winged and happy children of the air that Summer holds beneath her dome of blue, were known and loved by him. He loved the yellow Autumn fields, the golden stacks, the happy homes of men, the orchard’s bending boughs, the sumach’s flags of flame, the maples with transfigured leaves, the tender yellow of the beech, the wondrous harmonies of brown and gold—the vines where hang the clustered spheres of wit and mirth. He loved the winter days, the whirl and drift of snow—all forms of frost—the rage and fury of the storm, when the forest, desolate and stripped, the brave old pine towers green and grand—a prophecy of Spring. He heard the rhythmic sounds of Nature’s busy strife, the hum of bees, the songs of birds, the eagle’s cry, the murmur of the streams, the sighs and lamentations of the winds, and all the voices of the sea. He loved the shores, the vales, the crags and cliffs, the city’s busy streets, the introspective, silent plain, the solemn splendors of the night, the silver sea of dawn, and evening’s clouds of molten gold. The love of nature freed this loving man.
Note the sophisticated poetic quality, complete with alliteration (“flower and fruit,” “bending boughs,” “silver sea”) and the striking imagery (“evening’s clouds of molten gold”).
For comparison, here is a paragraph from “Ingersoll” (A Message . . . 1904, 20), allegedly written automatically:
You may believe I am drawing a fancy picture, my dear friends, but for the love of yourself, if not your fellow man, judge not what you do not believe, nor condemn not what is not absolutely wicked in the light of human kindness. Then remember that if man is capable of kindness and love the Creator of the universe is incapable of less love and kindness, and you are only a weak and ignorant vessel, touched with a spark for greater light, and when you wilfully destroy a human body you have done the utmost in your power, but you can so blacken your own soul by the desire to send others to your imaginary hell, that when you throw aside your mortal clothing you will see your soul marked with your evil intentions and hellish work, and ages may find you reaping, as you have sown, the seeds of hate and malice, and your victims reaping in your errors all the joys of eternal love in the mansions far above.
Note the biblical echoes—“reaping, as you have sown” (cf. Galatians 6:7) and “the mansions far above” (cf. John 14:2)—which seem unlikely to have come from the atheist orator.
Although the questioned text has a somewhat literary and even oratorical quality, it is ultimately unconvincing as the voice of Robert Ingersoll. Its long sentences are actually too long, and the percentage of polysyllabic words is too high (more than three times as much as in a comparative sample). That is to say, the style is superficially overblown. There are distinctively “wordy” passages, yet none reach the eloquence of Ingersoll. Another difference in the writings is shown by a method of literary analysis called stylometry (Nickell 1987, 95–97). Such an analysis includes common features like the frequency of the words the, of, and and—the most-used words in the English language—as a percentage of the text. In the sample, Ingersoll’s use of the, for example, was almost four times that of the “automatically” generated “Ingersoll.”
While interesting, such statistical differences can fluctuate from passage to passage and may not ultimately prove dependable. Therefore, I looked at other, more revealing features.
Notably, the “Ingersoll” automatic writing has a number of grammatical errors that are missing from the authentic Robert Ingersoll composition. They include noun-pronoun agreement errors (“the guide . . . their,” “one . . . they,” “my remains . . . it,” and “no mortal . . . their” [pp. 3, 7, 8, and 13]), faulty verb-subject agreement (“information and . . . inventions . . . is” and “There seems to be elements” [17 and 21]), run-on sentences (6, 9, 10), numerous instances of faulty punctuation, and at least one misspelling (“lead” for led ). There is faulty parallelism (“Heaven is not ruled by forms and creeds, but [by] true love and God Almighty’s laws” ), and other writing faults as well.
The stylistic evidence does not support the claim that Robert G. Ingersoll posthumously wrote the spirit text attributed to him. Instead, it appears to be no more than an imitation produced by the automatic writer—however unconsciously or consciously.
Although the “message” pamphlet gave only the person’s initials (“M.E.M.”), she was unidentifiable by standard bibliographic sources. Librarian Binga, however, finally discovered her name. It had been recorded on the Library of Congress’s old catalog card as Mary E. Matter. We know little about her except that she described herself as a “Philadelphia Psychic,” but we can infer something more.
Matter obviously exhibited several characteristics of what is termed fantasy proneness. Persons exhibiting a fantasy-prone personality are essentially sane and normal individuals who nevertheless exhibit such traits as being easily hypnotized (including falling into self-induced “trances”), claiming psychic abilities, allegedly being in touch with magical entities (e.g., spirits, alien beings, guardian angels, or the like), exhibiting automatic writing, and other traits. This personality type was characterized in a pioneering study that suggested that “individuals manifesting the fantasy-prone syndrome may have been over-represented among famous mediums, psychics, and religious visionaries of the past” (Wilson and Barber 1983, 371).
It seems curious that, if Robert G. Ingersoll did indeed communicate through an automatic writer, he did not choose either to continue to do so or find a way to provide better evidence of the reality of the “other side.” His silence is revealing.
- 1. For these statistical analyses, I chose two passages from “Ingersoll” (A Message . . . 1904), the third paragraph on p. 7 and the first full paragraph on p. 20. From Ingersoll (1887), I selected a paragraph beginning at the bottom of p. 421 and ending on p. 422 and another beginning at the bottom of p. 423 and ending on p. 424.
- Christopher, Milbourne. 1970. ESP, Seers & Psychics. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
- Flournoy, Theodore. 1901. From India to the Planet Mars. Reprinted New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.
- Gaines, Helen Fouché. 1956. Cryptanalysis. New York: Dover.
- Gardner, Martin. 1957. Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1991. Encyclopedia of the Strange, Mystical, & Unexplained. New York: Gramercy Books.
- Ingersoll, Robert. 1887. A Tribute to Henry Ward Beecher (June 26). In The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Dresden Memorial Edition in twelve vols., vol. 12: Tributes and Miscellany. New York: The Ingersoll League, 1929, 419–424.
- Kalush, William, and Larry Sloman. 2006. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. New York: Atria Books.
- A Message from Robert G. Ingersoll Transmitted by Automatic Writing Through a Philadelphia Psychic. 1904. N.p.: n.p. (23-page-pamphlet).
- Nickell, Joe. 1987. Literary Investigation: Texts, Sources, and “Factual” Substructs of Literature and Interpretation. Doctoral dissertation, University of Kentucky.
- —. 1991. Wonder-workers! How They Perform the Impossible. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- —. 1999. Ingersoll among the spirits. Ingersoll Report, vol. 6, 1–3.
- —. 2004. Abraham Lincoln: An instance of alleged ‘spirit writing.’ Skeptical Briefs 14:3 (September), 5–7, 11.
- Smith, Frank. 1990. Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber. 1983. The fantasy-prone personality. In Imagery: Current Theory, Research, and Application, edited by Anees A. Sheikh, 340–387. New York: John Wiley & Sons.