Charles Foster – The Billet Pioneer
This is a biography of Charles H. Foster, one of the most famous spiritualist mediums of the 19thcentury. It is also a history of spiritualism focusing on a specific area or technique known as “billet work.” Billets (French for notes), are simply small pieces of paper, usually about the size of a business card. Believers would typically write the names of their departed loved ones on them along with any questions they might have. The billets would then be folded or rolled up into a small ball and placed on the table. The medium conducting the séance was never seen opening the billets. Yet the medium would be able to communicate accurate and detailed messages in response to the queries.
Today, billets are rarely used in séance work. They are mainly used by mentalists for the entertainment of their audiences. In the last twenty years many clever innovations have been made to the body of billet technique. Some modern mentalists are dismissive of the older billet workers feeling that they used crude methods that have been surpassed by modern techniques.
However, it would be safe to say that these same modern mentalists would be surprised to learn just how sophisticated the old mediums were. They were not performing to entertain their audiences. For them, it was presented as genuine psychic phenomena which was taken very seriously with usually a lot of money being paid for the privilege. This is not unlike comparing the magician with a crooked gambler. The magician’s goal is to entertain his audience. If a magician fails in performing a trick, the results are usually just embarrassment. The crooked gambler is solely in it to win hisvictim’s money. If he makes a mistake, it could very well mean not only the loss of his livelihood but sometimes even his life. The psychic medium is similar to the crooked gambler in that they have much more to loose if they were get caught using trickery. This book will uncover some sophisticated techniques that have heretofore been lost to the world.
As a professional mentalist myself, I am always on the lookout for something new. Thinking I might be able to uncover some lost billet techniques to add to my own repertoire, I decided to investigate. I read up on the sparse history of billet work and discovered, Bert Reese, whom while legendary in the mentalism community, had very little written about him. Through extensive research I was able to uncover a whole wealth of information about how Reese made his living with billets.
This led to trying to find out where Reese had learned his craft. I eventually it traced to the 19thcentury spiritualist, Charles H. Foster. In previously published mentalism texts no one was ever able to exactly pin down the origins of billet work. It was always vaguely suggested that it came from séance world, but no one knew for sure. After ten years research, I believe I can demonstrate that it was, in fact, Charles H. Foster who invented this peculiar form of mediumship as an alleged means of communicating with the dead.
If there was little written about Bert Reese, there was even less about Charles Foster. This led to my investigating his life also and finding out about his remarkable and tragic career as a Spiritualist medium. Foster held his séances in full light claiming he actually saw and communicated with thedead. He had his sitters (attendees of the séance), write the names of their departed loved ones along with questions for them on slips of paper without letting Foster see what was written. The spirits, using Foster as a medium, would then miraculously identify the deceased names and answer any questions put to them.
The answering of questions was nothing new at séances. In fact, when spiritualism was first introduced by the two young Fox sisters in 1848, there occurred the first supposed communications with the dead. People questioned the spirits and received audible raps to their yes and no questions. To get more detailed answers, believers soon starting calling out the letters of the alphabet asking the spirits if that was a correct letter. The spirits would rap yes or no until each letter was revealed. This was quite a tedious process if whole sentences needed to be spelled out. At some point someone thought of having a card on the séance table with all the letters of the alphabet on it. The sitter would ask a question and then point to the letters on the card one at a time until a rap was heard confirming that it was the correct letter. This went a long way toward speeding up the process. Even Foster would eventually use the alphabet card but in more sophisticated ways.
Before Foster came up with his billet work, his séances consisted of the usual spiritualist phenomena popular at the time; mysterious raps answered questions, tables floated and musical instruments played by themselves. However, at some point, early in his career, Foster hit upon the concept of answering questions written on pieces of paper. He had been using the alphabet card already in the customary way answering questions with raps. Perhaps the writing of questions down was just a natural extension of that idea. Another possibility is that Foster adapted an idea from a contemporary of his, the spiritualist Henry Slade. Slade was causing a sensation have messages mysteriously appear on previously blank school slates. In any event, how Foster came up with this idea using billets will probably never be known for sure.
For many years clairvoyants in Europe and America had been receiving questions sealed in envelopes from believers. Answers would be given by return mail (for a fee) apparently without the original envelopes ever having been opened. However, the writing of questions on small slips of paper, folding them up and having answers immediately be given, had not been done until Foster came along.
Another one of the things that set Foster apart was that he was considered a “test medium.” A test medium could not only produce spirit phenomena but also accept challenges from sitters as to the genuineness of his mediumistic powers. A typical challenge Foster would encounter was when a question was written down and in sealed in an envelopes prior to the sitter coming to the séance. Foster would be challenged to tell the sitter the contents of the envelope and, if a question had been written, give an answer. Almost invariably, Foster would not only be able to divine the question but usually give a satisfactory answer without ever opening up the envelope.
As mentioned earlier, this type of clairvoyant reading of paper slips is now referred to as billet work. However, during Foster’s lifetime the word billet was hardly, if ever, used. They were almost always referred to as simply slips of paper. This was true for the medium, the sitters and newspaper accounts of the time. If the slips were rolled into small balls they were referred to as pellets.
In 1898 a book was published entitled, Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena, by William E. Robinson. Robinson was a well respected authority on everything related to magic having been the stage manager of the greatest magician of the time, Alexander Herrmann. After Herrmann’s death, Robinson went on to achieve world wide fame performing as Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese magician. In this book he revealed many of the methods of how fraudulent mediums hoodwinked their clients. While the majority of the book focused on slate tricks of mediums, there was a section on reading slips of paper. In fact, it is the earliest reference I have been able to uncover which refers to the slip of paper used at a séance as a “billet.”
From page 56:
“Suppose the writer of a billet, the contents of which are known only to himself, lets it out of his hands and loses sight of it for five minutes, it may be carried either in the direct sunlight, or into electric or magnesium light, and be read by the aid of the egg-glass.”
Robinson proceeds to describe some basic billet technique, and goes on to say:
“The name of Foster is almost invariably coupled with any test wherein there is reading of sealed letters, pellets, etc., just the same as Slade’s is connected with the slate reading tests.”
In fact, it seems that it was magicians and not spiritualists who originally started using the term billet. It wouldn’t be until the early part of the 20th century that the term would regularly be adopted by magicians and mentalists (theatrical mind readers).
Salem, Massachusetts is most remembered for its infamous 17th century witch trials. These trials are now considered to be among the most notorious cases of mass hysteria on record in this country. Some might even use the term insanity to describe the extreme religious views and paranoia of the Salem residents in executing 20 of their fellow townsfolk for being witches.
One hundred and forty years after the witchcraft trials ended, Charles H. Foster was born in Salem. Ironically enough, just as the insanity of the Salem witchcraft trials swept through his town generations earlier, insanity would eventually overtake Foster’s own life. And like the unfortunate people executed for witchcraft in Salem, Foster would meet his sad fate at the Danvers Insane Asylum, very near where the witch trials had been held.
Foster says his powers first manifested when he was a teenager. In a New York Times interview titled “A Chat with a Spiritualist” (July 28, 1872), he commented on these early events:
CHF: I was quite a child when these spiritual manifestations first came upon me. I could not understand the rappings of the spirits at that time.
NYT: Did they alarm you?
CHF: Not at all.
NYT: How do you account for that? It seems but natural that a child should be instinctively alarmed at unnatural sounds, the meaning of which he cannot understand and whose source he cannot trace.
CHF: True, in the case of ordinary children. But you must recollect that few persons are selected by the spirits as mediums for communicating with those dear ones they have left behind them on earth.
NYT: Did these manifestations come upon you suddenly and with their full force?
CHF: No. It took years for them to arrive at their present development. As I said, these manifestations did not alarm me, for the reason that I believe the unseen influences which produced them found a congenial and responsive element in my nature. I was by nature a medium, and I feel that had the spirits never come to me as a means of communication with the world, there would have been such a yearning for an unknown something that my earthly existence would have been a short one. I cannot explain to you the why or the wherefore from any psychological premises; but there is in me a superabundance of some strange force that only finds an outlet in communication with the spirits. Did the spirits forsake me as a medium of communication, I feel that I should either die or become insane [emphasis added].
Other than accounts by his family, there are no additional records of Foster’s discovery of his early powers as a medium. As a teenager, he likely became aware of the developing widespread interest in spiritualism. Most spiritualists agree that the beginning of their movement occurred on March 31, 1848, when two young girls, Margaret and Kate Fox, of Hydesville, New York, reported that they were communicating with the spirit of a murdered man who had previously lived in their house. The spirit made his presence known through loud rapping noises, which was first heard by the girls’ family and then their neighbors. Not long after, people came from all over the state to witness this strange phenomenon. The girls became famous and the religion of spiritualism was born. Foster, who would have been 15 years old at the time, initially may have wanted to emulate the Fox sisters and play pranks on his family and schoolmates.
In an interview by George C. Bartlett in The Salem Seer, Foster’s father claims that he and his wife believed they saw and heard spirits their whole lives. It would therefore have been easy for a young Charles to play tricks on them. Perhaps he was so successful that he decided to become a medium himself. The Federal Census of 1850 records Charles, age 16, as living with his parents, and his career is listed as “artist.” The 1855 census lists 22-year-old Charles as still boarding with his parents, but his occupation is “cigar maker.”
FIRST RECORD OF A CHARLES FOSTER SÉANCE
The first recorded mention of a Foster séance came in 1857, when Foster, then almost 24, was still living at Turner Street with his parents.
On August 27, a letter to the editor appeared in the leading spiritualistic newspaper, Banner of Light, published weekly in Boston. A woman who signed her name simply as “Emily” wrote that while she had attended several circles (séances) in Salem. Foster’s séance which had taken place the previous month at the home of R. J. Davis of Salem, was the first she had written about. She added that her account of the sitting would not only interest believers, but also skeptics who might become believers.
In the letter, Emily describes how, almost immediately after Foster and approximately 15 sitters were seated, the mahogany center table was raised entirely from the floor and held in mid-air for approximately one minute.
Several communications were then received via table rapping and notes written to a number of those present. Foster next described the dead spirits of friends and relatives of the sitters, claiming that upon the foreheads of several of these spirits were inscribed the names they had while in earthly life. In some cases an additional word such as happiness or innocence was written beneath the name. Foster depicted these words as raised in the spirits’ “flesh” so as to be distinctly seen by him.
Foster claimed that the spirits appeared to him as they did in life, down to the details of their dress and features, so their earthly friends could recognize them. The same was true of the written communications he received, which were written in a style and language characteristic of the person when he or she was alive.
At this point in the séance, Emily recounts that Foster became entranced and exclaimed, “Before me I see a vessel upon the ocean, upon the mast of which I read the letters N. P. On the deck I see several dark-looking men. Oh! They are nailing them to the planks!” In the letter, Emily details Foster as speaking these words with a look and tone of absolute horror before fainting and falling to the floor.
Emily’s account continues: After he recovered, Foster reportedly went into a clairvoyant state and correctly described a member of the ship’s crew — the late husband of one of the women present — who had been lost at sea over 20 years earlier. The ship, which Foster correctly identified with the initials N. P., had eventually been found but the crew was presumed to have been murdered by pirates.
The next sitter to receive a communication from the spirit world was Mr. Davis, the owner of the house where the séance was taking place. Davis had lost his son James some eight years earlier. At a previous séance at a different home, Davis had received a communication from his son’s spirit saying if his father would hold a circle in his own house, the son would attempt to make himself heard on the harp, his favorite instrument while living.