Contributions to All the Year Round, by Charles Dickens

Rather a Strong Dose

“Doctor John Campbell, the minister of the Tabernacle Chapel, Finsbury, and editor of the British Banner, etc., with that massive vigour which distinguishes his style,” did, we are informed by Mr. Howitt, “deliver a verdict in the Banner, for November, 1852,” of great importance and favour to the Table-rapping cause. We are not informed whether the Public, sitting in judgment on the question, reserved any point in this great verdict for subsequent consideration; but the verdict would seem to have been regarded by a perverse generation as not quite final, inasmuch as Mr. Howitt finds it necessary to re-open the case, a round ten years afterwards, in nine hundred and sixty-two stiff octavo pages, published by Messrs. Longman and Company.

Mr. Howitt is in such a bristling temper on the Supernatural subject, that we will not take the great liberty of arguing any point with him. But — with the view of assisting him to make converts — we will inform our readers, on his conclusive authority, what they are required to believe; premising what may rather astonish them in connexion with their views of a certain historical trifle, called The Reformation, that their present state of unbelief is all the fault of Protestantism, and that “it is high time, therefore, to protest against Protestantism”.

They will please to believe, by way of an easy beginning, all the stories of good and evil demons, ghosts, prophecies, communication with spirits, and practice of magic, that ever obtained, or are said to have ever obtained, in the North, in the South, in the East, in the West, from the earliest and darkest ages, as to which we have any hazy intelligence, real or supposititious, down to the yet unfinished displacement of the red men in North America. They will please to believe that nothing in this wise was changed by the fulfilment of our Saviour’s mission upon earth; and further, that what Saint Paul did, can be done again, and has been done again. As this is not much to begin with, they will throw in at this point rejection of Faraday and Brewster, and “poor Paley”, and implicit acceptance of those shining lights, the Reverend Charles Beecher, and the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (“one of the most vigorous and eloquent preachers of America”), and the Reverend Adin Ballou.

Having thus cleared the way for a healthy exercise of faith, our advancing readers will next proceed especially to believe in the old story of the Drummer of Tedworth, in the inspiration of George Fox, in “the spiritualism, prophecies, and provision” of Huntington the coal-porter (him who prayed for the leather breeches which miraculously fitted him), and even in the Cock Lane Ghost. They will please wind up, before fetching their breath, with believing that there is a close analogy between rejection of any such plain and proved facts as those contained in the whole foregoing catalogue, and the opposition encountered by the inventors of railways, lighting by gas, microscopes and telescopes, and vaccination. This stinging consideration they will always carry rankling in their remorseful hearts as they advance.

As touching the Cock Lane Ghost, our conscience-stricken readers will please particularly to reproach themselves for having ever supposed that important spiritual manifestation to have been a gross imposture which was thoroughly detected. They will please to believe that Dr. Johnson believed in it, and that, in Mr. Howitt’s words, he “appears to have had excellent reasons for his belief”. With a view to this end, the faithful will be so good as to obliterate from their Boswells the following passage: “Many of my readers, I am convinced, are to this hour under an impression that Johnson was thus foolishly deceived. It will therefore surprise them a good deal when they are informed upon undoubted authority that Johnson was one of those by whom the imposture was detected. The story had become so popular, that he thought it should be investigated, and in this research he was assisted by the Rev. Dr. Douglas, now Bishop of Salisbury, the great detector of impostures” — and therefore tremendously obnoxious to Mr. Howitt — “who informs me that after the gentlemen who went and examined into the evidence were satisfied of its falsity, Johnson wrote in their presence an account of it, which was published in the newspapers and Gentleman’s Magazine, and undeceived the world”. But as there will still remain another highly inconvenient passage in the Boswells of the true believers, they must likewise be at the trouble of cancelling the following also, referring to a later time: “He (Johnson) expressed great indignation at the imposture of the Cock Lane Ghost, and related with much satisfaction how he had assisted in detecting the cheat, and had published an account of it in the newspapers”.

They will next believe (if they be, in the words of Captain Bobadil, “so generously minded”) in the transatlantic trance-speakers “who professed to speak from direct inspiration”, Mrs. Cora Hatch, Mrs. Henderson, and Miss Emma Hardinge; and they will believe in those eminent ladies having “spoken on Sundays to five hundred thousand hearers”— small audiences, by the way, compared with the intelligent concourse recently assembled in the city of New York, to do honour to the Nuptials of General the Honourable T. Barnum Thumb. At about this stage of their spiritual education they may take the opportunity of believing in “letters from a distinguished gentleman of New York, in which the frequent appearance of the gentleman’s deceased wife and of Dr. Franklin, to him and other well-known friends, are unquestionably unequalled in the annals of the marvellous”. Why these modest appearances should seem at all out of the common way to Mr. Howitt (who would be in a state of flaming indignation if we thought them so), we could not imagine, until we found on reading further, “it is solemnly stated that the witnesses have not only seen but touched these spirits, and handled the clothes and hair of Franklin”. Without presuming to go Mr. Howitt’s length of considering this by any means a marvellous experience, we yet venture to confess that it has awakened in our mind many interesting speculations touching the present whereabout in space, of the spirits of Mr. Howitt’s own departed boots and hats.

The next articles of belief are Belief in the moderate figures of “thirty thousand media in the United States in 1853”; and in two million five hundred thousand spiritualists in the same country of composed minds, in 1855, “professing to have arrived at their convictions of spiritual communication from personal experience”; and in “an average rate of increase of three hundred thousand per annum”, still in the same country of calm philosophers. Belief in spiritual knockings, in all manner of American places, and, among others, in the house of “a Doctor Phelps at Stratford, Connecticut, a man of the highest character for intelligence”, says Mr. Howitt, and to whom we willingly concede the possession of far higher intelligence than was displayed by his spiritual knocker, in “frequently cutting to pieces the clothes of one of his boys”, and in breaking “seventy-one panes of glass”— unless, indeed, the knocker, when in the body, was connected with the tailoring and glazing interests. Belief in immaterial performers playing (in the dark though: they are obstinate about its being in the dark) on material instruments of wood, catgut, brass, tin, and parchment. Your belief is further requested in “the Kentucky Jerks”. The spiritual achievements thus euphoniously denominated “appear”, says Mr. Howitt, “to have been of a very disorderly kind”. It appears that a certain Mr. Doke, a Presbyterian clergyman, “was first seized by the jerks”, and the jerks laid hold of Mr. Doke in that unclerical way and with that scant respect for his cloth, that they “twitched him about in a most extraordinary manner, often when in the pulpit, and caused him to shout aloud, and run out of the pulpit into the woods, screaming like a madman. When the fit was over, he returned calmly to his pulpit and finished the service.” The congregation having waited, we presume, and edified themselves with the distant bellowings of Doke in the woods, until he came back again, a little warm and hoarse, but otherwise in fine condition. “People were often seized at hotels, and at table would, on lifting a glass to drink, jerk the liquor to the ceiling; ladies would at the breakfast-table suddenly be compelled to throw aloft their coffee, and frequently break the cup and saucer.” A certain venturesome clergyman vowed that he would preach down the Jerks, “but he was seized in the midst of his attempt, and made so ridiculous that he withdrew himself from further notice”— an example much to be commended. That same favoured land of America has been particularly favoured in the development of “innumerable mediums”, and Mr. Howitt orders you to believe in Daniel Dunglas Home, Andrew Davis Jackson, and Thomas L. Harris, as “the three most remarkable, or most familiar, on this side of the Atlantic”. Concerning Mr. Home, the articles of belief (besides removal of furniture) are, That through him raps have been given and communications made from deceased friends. That “his hand has been seized by spirit influence, and rapid communications written out, of a surprising character to those to whom they were addressed”. That at his bidding, “spirit hands have appeared which have been seen, felt, and recognised frequently, by persons present, as those of deceased friends”. That he has been frequently lifted up and carried, floating “as it were” through a room, near the ceiling. That in America, “all these phenomena have displayed themselves in greater force than here”— which we have not the slightest doubt of. That he is “the planter of spiritualism all over Europe”. That “by circumstances that no man could have devised, he became the guest of the Emperor of the French, of the King of Holland, of the Czar of Russia, and of many lesser princes”. That he returned from “this unpremeditated missionary tour”, “endowed with competence”; but not before, “at the Tuileries, on one occasion when the emperor, empress, a distinguished lady, and himself only were sitting at table, a hand appeared, took up a pen, and wrote, in a strong and well-known character, the word Napoleon. The hand was then successively presented to the several personages of the party to kiss.” The stout believer, having disposed of Mr. Home, and rested a little, will then proceed to believe in Andrew Davis Jackson, or Andrew Jackson Davis (Mr. Howitt, having no Medium at hand to settle this difference and reveal the right name of the seer, calls him by both names), who merely “beheld all the essential natures of things, saw the interior of men and animals, as perfectly as their exterior; and described them in language so correct, that the most able technologists could not surpass him. He pointed out the proper remedies for all the complaints, and the shops where they were to be obtained”; — in the latter respect appearing to hail from an advertising circle, as we conceive. It was also in this gentleman’s limited department to “see the metals in the earth”, and to have “the most distant regions and their various productions present before him”. Having despatched this tough case, the believer will pass on to Thomas L. Harris, and will swallow HIM easily, together with “whole epics” of his composition; a certain work “of scarcely less than Miltonic grandeur”, called The Lyric of the Golden Age — a lyric pretty nigh as long as one of Mr. Howitt’s volumes — dictated by Mr. (not Mrs.) Harris to the publisher in ninety-four hours; and several extempore sermons, possessing the remarkably lucid property of being “full, unforced, out-gushing, unstinted, and absorbing”. The candidate for examination in pure belief, will then pass on to the spirit-photography department; this, again, will be found in so- favoured America, under the superintendence of Medium Mumler, a photographer of Boston: who was “astonished” (though, on Mr. Howitt’s showing, he surely ought not to have been) “on taking a photograph of himself, to find also by his side the figure of a young girl, which he immediately recognised as that of a deceased relative. The circumstance made a great excitement. Numbers of persons rushed to his rooms, and many have found deceased friends photographed with themselves.” (Perhaps Mr. Mumler, too, may become “endowed with competence” in time. Who knows?) Finally, the true believers in the gospel according to Howitt, have, besides, but to pin their faith on “ladies who see spirits habitually”, on ladies who KNOW they have a tendency to soar in the air on sufficient provocation, and on a few other gnats to be taken after their camels, and they shall be pronounced by Mr. Howitt not of the stereotyped class of minds, and not partakers of “the astonishing ignorance of the press”, and shall receive a first-class certificate of merit.

But before they pass through this portal into the Temple of Serene Wisdom, we, halting blind and helpless on the steps, beg to suggest to them what they must at once and for ever disbelieve. They must disbelieve that in the dark times, when very few were versed in what are now the mere recreations of Science, and when those few formed a priesthood-class apart, any marvels were wrought by the aid of concave mirrors and a knowledge of the properties of certain odours and gases, although the self-same marvels could be reproduced before their eyes at the Polytechnic Institution, Regent Street, London, any day in the year. They must by no means believe that Conjuring and Ventriloquism are old trades. They must disbelieve all Philosophical Transactions containing the records of painful and careful inquiry into now familiar disorders of the senses of seeing and hearing, and into the wonders of somnambulism, epilepsy, hysteria, miasmatic influence, vegetable poisons derived by whole communities from corrupted air, diseased imitation, and moral infection. They must disbelieve all such awkward leading cases as the case of the Woodstock Commissioners and their man, and the case of the Identity of the Stockwell Ghost, with the maid-servant. They must disbelieve the vanishing of champion haunted houses (except, indeed, out of Mr. Howitt’s book), represented to have been closed and ruined for years, before one day’s inquiry by four gentlemen associated with this journal, and one hour’s reference to the Local Rate-books. They must disbelieve all possibility of a human creature on the last verge of the dark bridge from Life to Death, being mysteriously able, in occasional cases, so to influence the mind of one very near and dear, as vividly to impress that mind with some disturbed sense of the solemn change impending. They must disbelieve the possibility of the lawful existence of a class of intellects which, humbly conscious of the illimitable power of GOD and of their own weakness and ignorance, never deny that He can cause the souls of the dead to revisit the earth, or that He may have caused the souls of the dead to revisit the earth, or that He can cause any awful or wondrous thing to be; but to deny the likelihood of apparitions or spirits coming here upon the stupidest of bootless errands, and producing credentials tantamount to a solicitation of our vote and interest and next proxy, to get them into the Asylum for Idiots. They must disbelieve the right of Christian people who do NOT protest against Protestantism, but who hold it to be a barrier against the darkest superstitions that can enslave the soul, to guard with jealousy all approaches tending down to Cock Lane Ghosts and suchlike infamous swindles, widely degrading when widely believed in; and they must disbelieve that such people have the right to know, and that it is their duty to know, wonder-workers by their fruits, and to test miracle-mongers by the tests of probability, analogy, and common sense. They must disbelieve all rational explanations of thoroughly proved experiences (only) which appear supernatural, derived from the average experience and study of the visible world. They must disbelieve the speciality of the Master and the Disciples, and that it is a monstrosity to test the wonders of show-folk by the same touchstone. Lastly, they must disbelieve that one of the best accredited chapters in the history of mankind is the chapter that records the astonishing deceits continually practised, with no object or purpose but the distorted pleasure of deceiving.

We have summed up a few — not nearly all — of the articles of belief and disbelief to which Mr. Howitt most arrogantly demands an implicit adherence. To uphold these, he uses a book as a Clown in a Pantomime does, and knocks everybody on the head with it who comes in his way. Moreover, he is an angrier personage than the Clown, and does not experimentally try the effect of his red-hot poker on your shins, but straightway runs you through the body and soul with it. He is always raging to tell you that if you are not Howitt, you are Atheist and Anti-Christ. He is the sans-culotte of the Spiritual Revolution, and will not hear of your accepting this point and rejecting that; — down your throat with them all, one and indivisible, at the point of the pike; No Liberty, Totality, Fraternity, or Death!

Without presuming to question that “it is high time to protest against Protestantism” on such very substantial grounds as Mr. Howitt sets forth, we do presume to think that it is high time to protest against Mr. Howitt’s spiritualism, as being a little in excess of the peculiar merit of Thomas L. Harris’s sermons, and somewhat TOO “full, out-gushing, unstinted, and absorbing”.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54ca/chapter7.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30