According to Emily’s description, the current séance was reportedly so remarkable, that Davis and the other sitters had forgotten about that earlier promise. They were reminded only when Foster’s hand, being influenced by the spirit, began writing that James was ready to play the harp. Through Foster, the spirit told the sitters to dim the gas but leave enough light for everyone to still see distinctly all the objects in the room.
Emily’s newspaper report of the evening’s events continues with a description of the harp being brought forward and placed at least five feet from Foster, between him and two other sitters. Foster directed the others to sing so as to create greater harmony with the spirit world. One woman began, “Come, sweet spirit, come,” improvising for one or two verses.
When she finished singing, all attendees sat eagerly waiting for the harp to begin playing. Foster once again went into a clairvoyant state and was able to describe the spirit of James as standing near the harp, but appearing to have trouble getting close enough to it to play. Suddenly the harp was struck with such force as to be heard in the next room. This was repeated several times and witnessed by all the sitters in the circle.
These manifestations were reportedly only a small part of the entire séance. In her letter to the editor, Emily praised Foster very highly not only as a rapping and writing medium but also for his entrancing and clairvoyant powers. She also clarifies that when “entranced,” Foster was not conscious of what he is saying, whereas while in the “clairvoyant” state he was fully conscious and the spirits took possession and spoke through him.
In Emily’s letter we hear for the first time that Foster also diagnosed diseases and prescribed their remedies. While this was fairly common in some spiritualist circles, little or no mention of this is made in subsequent Foster séances. Emily states that Foster’s finest work was done while he was in his trance state because it is “more ennobling and elevating to the soul, and these teachings, if properly listened to, cannot fail to have a purifying influence on the heart.”
She goes on to recommend that anyone wishing to witness similar manifestations should have a sitting either at the Foster home on Turner Street or at the Lyceum Hall in Salem, where he holds public circles on Sunday mornings. The raised writing on the spirits’ head would seem to foreshadow Foster’s stigmata work later on.
THEORIES ON EMILY’S SÉANCE EXPERIENCE
From the description of this early Foster séance, it seems that Foster made use of advance information about the lost sailor either through his own research or through what is known as a blue book from another medium. The best description of a blue book appears in Revelations of a Spirit Medium (1891):
These note books, ‘generals,’ or ‘pony’ books, as they are sometimes called, have been used by American mediums for years for the purpose of gaining information about their sitters. It has often been thought that a great directory commonly called the Blue Book is in existence, and there is a certain amount of evidence which supports such a notion. The truth probably is that in every centre where there are many people interested in spiritualism, and where traveling mediums are constantly calling, the resident medium or some intermediate agent has a few note books or card index containing particulars of prominent spiritualists in the neighborhood. This information would be supplied to the visiting medium for a consideration, or perhaps exchanged for similar information about another locality. A universal directory of American spiritualists would obviously be far too bulky to escape detection, and would rapidly go out of date, being too costly to keep up for long. Probably some of the larger centers entailed books of somewhat bulky proportions, and this may account for the rumors of the Blue Book which are often heard. That fraudulent mediums make use of information supplied by their colleagues in the same trade is certain, but the assertion that all the information received was filed together in an immense directory is, to say the least, extremely doubtful.
At the time of this July 1857 séance, no mention is made of slips of paper (billets) being used by sitters to write personal information. While photography, having been invented in about 1829, was in its infancy, it is possible that Foster either had access to personal photographs in the sitter’s home or through his blue book sources.
The levitation of such a large table, which seated fifteen or more participants, suggests that Foster had a confederate helping him at the beginning of the séance. Regarding the harp, it is possible that Foster had the sitters sing so as to either gain time or cover any noise that may have been made while preparing to have the harp plucked. According to Emily’s description, the strings were struck but no song was played. If Foster had an accomplice help him lift the table, perhaps this same person also struck the harp with a reaching rod, concealed by the semi-darkness. A reaching rod is a telescoping rod that a medium conceals on his person and extends during dark séances for the purpose of touching one of the sitters or moving objects. Because Foster was not restrained or holding hands with other sitters, he might easily have done it himself. If a reaching rod extends three feet plus the additional two feet of Foster’s arm, it would make sense that he had the harp placed five feet away from him. We’re not told if the participants who sat between Foster and the harp were facing him or not.
October 1857, when Foster was 24, marked one of the earliest mentions of what could be termed spirit writing. The phrases trance writing and spirit writing are often used interchangeably, but for clarity the usage will be differentiated: In trance writing, the medium allegedly becomes entranced and openly writes out messages directed by the spirits. Spirit writing is when messages mysteriously appear on blank paper held out of sight underneath the table.
Charles Foster made use of both techniques.
The account of the 1857 spirit writing is recorded in a letter to the Banner of Light written by “N. O. Symonds.” During his first séance with Foster, Symonds describes various manifestations performed by the medium, including his becoming entranced, spirits speaking through him, written communications, and questions answered by raps on the table. The spirit spoke for some time, and all present agreed it was that of the deceased Rev. Hosea Ballou (1771-1852).
Ballou was one of the most influential early preachers in the Universalist movement. He lived in New England and would have been deceased five years at the time of this séance. Interestingly, his distant descendant, Adin Ballou, held a séance with Foster in about 1862, which he wrote of in his autobiography.
Next, the spirit writing test was performed. Foster called for a piece of white paper to be used. He laid it on the palm of his left hand, and with a lead pencil placed on top of it, put them underneath the table. His right hand remained in plain sight. Foster asked the spirit if it would write its name, and soon three distinct raps were heard, which indicated, yes. When the paper was brought up, the name Hosea Ballou was seen on it, written from right to left. This test was repeated a number of times, each with a different name written in a similar fashion.
DETAILED ACCOUNT OF SPIRIT WRITING
In the letter to the Banner, Symonds recalls another sitting to which he brought his brother — who was a writing medium himself — to Foster’s home on Turner Street. Symonds, his brother, and Foster were the only ones present. The sitters entered the well-lit room, and the brother placed his hat on a chair in the corner.
Once seated, Foster directed each of them in turn to hold a sheet of clean white paper and a pencil under the table. This was different from the previous sitting, where Foster had held the paper himself. All hands were kept on top of the table except the one holding the paper and pencil. The brothers claimed that while they each held the paper under the table, they felt what seemed to be another hand abruptly take it and throw it to the floor. With the paper and pencil on the floor, Foster asked the spirits if they would write their name. Three raps were heard, signaling an affirmative answer.
Symonds’ account continues: When he picked the paper up from the floor, the results were the same as before — a name had been written in reverse from right to left. However, this time it was not the name of a random spirit, but of their sister, who had died two years earlier. Symonds proclaimed the signature was a perfect facsimile of his late sister’s handwriting.
Foster had gone into a trance several times during the evening. He spoke in such a manner on a variety of topics that the brothers believed he could not have known anything about them in his “natural state.”
Symonds recalls other manifestations during the séance. A hand bell that had been placed underneath the table rang out at various intervals, and both Symonds and his brother felt a hand tapping them while the medium was out of reach.
The 1857 letter to the Banner also includes the description of a unique musical manifestation by Foster — making a melodeon play by itself. A 19th-century reed organ, the melodeon resembles a small piano. It is operated by foot pedals with a bellows inside that provides the necessary air for the reeds to sound. Melodeons were inexpensive and commonly found in homes of the time. Foster was fond of singing and playing the piano, and it is reasonable to suppose that he was skilled on the melodeon as well.
1 Home, perhaps the most noted medium of his time, was famous for making an accordion play underneath tables. Home was born in Scotland the same year as Foster, and emigrated to Greeneville, Connecticut, as a young boy. Perhaps the mediums, both living in New England, influenced each other?
Symonds’ account of the evening continues with the sitters moving the Foster family melodeon to the middle of the room to examine it carefully. Symonds filled the instrument with wind, tried all the keys, and was satisfied it was in good working order. The air was let out and the keys were tried again. No sound came forth. The instrument was closed and locked, and Symonds retained the key.
According to Symonds, Foster suggested the sitters take seats approximately four feet from the instrument and said, “Any questions you may ask will be answered from the melodeon.” The brother asked the spirits if four well-known clergymen were present, each one being called in turn. As each name was uttered, an answer came forth from the melodeon in three distinct tones, indicating yes the spirits were present.
I FELT A HAND TAKE HOLD OF MINE
Foster next directed the brother to hold his hand under the table. Even though all other hands were visible, the brother felt something on his hand below the table. “I felt a hand take hold of mine,” he said, “and I felt something like a book in it.” Symonds instructed him to, “Put your hand under again; perhaps you may get hold of the book.” Using a light to look under the table, Symonds was surprised to see the brother’s hat laying on the floor. Both sitters recalled that no one had gone near the hat during the entire evening after it had initially been placed on the chair upon entering.