IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE
In the letter, Symonds cited another Foster séance he attended a few months later, on December 1, 1857. He wrote that similar manifestations were produced as previously witnessed, with the same satisfactory results.
However, on this occasion, the spirit writing was slightly different. Foster called for a piece of paper to be examined. Next, he held the paper under the table with his left hand, while his right hand remained on top as usual. But this time one of the sitters, seated approximately two feet away, held the pencil underneath the table to ensure there was no possibility that the pencil would contact the paper.
The paper was taken from the medium’s hand and thrown to the floor. The gentleman holding the pencil claimed he saw letters rise on the paper and take the shape of a name, which was verified by all. No mention was made as to whether this was a spirit known to one of the sitters, or whether it was written in reverse.
Another sitter then asked if any of his spirit friends were present, and there came the usual three raps indicating yes. Upon hearing this, the spirit was queried if it would write its name, as had been done while in physical form on earth. Again three raps were heard. Another piece of white paper was held under the table by Foster while the sitter held the pencil. A signature appeared and was verified to be a facsimile of the departed friend.
N. O. Symonds closed his letter to the Banner of Light with the hope that it would induce others to investigate the phenomenon of Spiritualism, which had been “engaging the attention of many thinking minds.”
SYMONDS SÉANCE THEORIES
At least one exposer of Foster claimed that he made the raps with the heal of his boot against the rung of his chair.
Both brothers described what felt like a hand underneath the table that thrust the paper from their grasp. The practice of bell ringing might indicate how this was accomplished. A hand bell rung underneath the table was usually done by the medium’s foot. His sock would have its lower end cut off, exposing the toes. At the appropriate time, the medium would slip his foot out of his shoe, grab the bell with his toes, ring it, then slip his foot back into his shoe. If this was in fact what Foster did, then the “hand” the sitters felt underneath the table was likely his bare foot.
Spirit Writing Methods
Spirit writing occurs when either the medium or a sitter holds paper and pencil underneath the table with one hand, and when brought up again, the paper has writing on it. Usually it was a the name of a deceased famous person or relative of a participant written backwards, and sometimes in a facsimile of their handwriting.
In the 1857 séance that Symonds attended, Foster became entranced and purportedly channeled the name of the late Hosea Ballou. Foster spoke as the reverend, and questions for him were answered through raps and trance writing. Then came the spirit writing: Foster held a blank piece of paper and pencil under the table and the reverend’s name materialized on it, written backwards from right to left. This was repeated several times with different names.
Notice in this description that the spirit’s name was not one related to any of the sitters, but rather a famous one chosen by Foster. No mention of slips of paper with personal information was recorded yet in Foster’s career. Because this was Symonds’ first sitting with the medium, chances are no advance information was known about him. Hence, the name of the famous reverend was used. It is not clear if the other names materialized were related to the sitters — if they were, the writer likely would have noted that fact in his letter.
In the first séance that Symonds attended, Foster would not have had to secretly obtain a name related to a sitter. He simply selected one that was easily recognized — Reverend Ballou — and wrote it on the paper before his sitters arrived. In the second séance, in which personal names were used, Foster would have had to secretly obtain them, probably before his sitters arrived. The paper was presumably supplied by Foster, which necessitated examining it. Few sitters would bring blank paper with them (although in future sittings some would)
So, how did the writing appear on the paper underneath the table? Let us examine some of the possible methods that Foster employed.
- Foster wrote on the paper while it was underneath the table
This is the first thing that would normally come to mind. Foster using only one hand was restricted as to how he could do this. Remember that the writing was done backwards and at times was a facsimile of the deceased’s handwriting. Foster could not have written it on his lap and doubtful that he used the seat of his chair for a writing surface.
It is possible that he used the underside of the table to write on. He may have had some wax hidden on the underside of the table. Taking the paper and pencil in his left hand and bringing them under the table, Foster could stick the paper to the underside of the table and proceed to write the desired name on it.
I repeatedly tried to do this myself, writing backwards and upside down and got quite confused, producing an unintelligible scrawl. I asked noted mentalist and historian, Max Maven, about this and he informed me it is relatively easy to write backwards while under the table. With the paper stuck to the underside of the table, if one simply writes a word in the ordinary way from left to right, it will come out as backwards. I then tried this and found it to be true if producing only a somewhat intelligible scrawl. But it is possible. Perhaps Foster just had a knack for writing backwards.
It also is feasible that Foster used an early form of nail writer, but this would not seem applicable to this type of writing making it an even more difficult task.
- Foster used invisible ink to produce the writing
Another method for having writing appear on a piece of paper held underneath a table is to have written it with invisible ink. The writing is later made visible by different methods according to the type of invisible ink used. Common household substances available for invisible ink in Foster’s day included: lemon or onion juice, honey solution, milk, sugar solution, wine and vinegar. The writing done by these substances are developed by heat which oxidizes them, usually turning the “ink” brown. (Other substances suitable for invisible ink utilize a chemical method for developing which would not be applicable to the séance room.)
Probably the most common method for invisible writing was the use of lemon juice. The message is written with lemon juice and let dry where it becomes invisible. When exposed to heat, the writing would again appear. The problem is how the paper could be secretly heated enough to expose the writing during the séance. I have tried writing with lemon juice and it takes a fair amount of heat to make the writing appear. The paper just laying on a warm floor would not do it.
The use of invisible ink would account for the manifestations, particularly for the time that the sitter said he saw the name visibly appear on the paper. This along with those occasions where the handwriting appeared in a similar style to the deceased, would tend to lend credence to this theory. In this case the handwriting would either have to have been copied from a signature beforehand or else just written in a typical hand of the day.
However, without heat or some other way to develop the writing, the use of invisible ink remains an open question.
- Foster switched papers underneath the table
With the Reverend Ballou, the spirit writing came after some other manifestations occurred, perhaps giving Foster time to prepare what he needed to do for the spirit writing. In the next account, the handwriting was said to be not only legible but very similar to that of the deceased sister. This would suggest a method where the name was secretly written beforehand on a duplicate sheet of paper.
Foster might have had a duplicate piece of paper with the deceased’s name previously written on it. It is not known how large a piece of paper was used. Since only a name was written on the paper, they might have been small slips; similar to what he would later use for his billet work (1” x 5”) or else note paper. The duplicate paper with the writing on it could be stuck to the underside of the table with wax, hidden underneath Foster’s chair or concealed on his person later to be retrieved when needed.
One possible scenario is this. When ready to do the spirit writing, Foster secretly maneuvered the prepared paper onto his lap. The blank paper was placed in his left hand with a pencil laying crosswise on it. Foster’s right hand would stay in view on top of the table.
When the blank paper was placed underneath the table, Foster held onto the pencil with his left thumb and opened his fingers clipping the prepared paper below. Then while holding onto the prepared paper, Foster could let the blank paper fall into his lap. His left hand continued underneath the table carrying the prepared paper and pencil.
Assuming Foster had his sock cut out for the bell ringing, perhaps that somehow helped him with switching the billets under the table.
After the proper raps occurred signaling the spirits were done with their writing, Foster would bring up the prepared paper and pencil displaying the signature. At a convenient time, he could dispose of the blank paper in his lap by slipping it under his chair or even adding it surreptitiously to the other papers remaining on the table.
In the second and third sittings, having the sitters hold the pencil instead of Foster would make the switch much easier. This way when Foster picked up the prepared paper while going under the table, he could bring both pieces underneath the table top. After the raps sounded, he could then throw the prepared piece to the floor retaining the blank in his hand. This would make the switch faster as he never had to let go of the blank paper. Throwing the paper to the floor would give Foster more misdirection to ditch the blank paper.
MOST LIKELY METHOD
I have experimented with this last method and found it very workable. This is the simplest and most practical method and therefore a likely candidate for Foster’s technique. In addition, keep in mind that Foster would soon develop his billet work, the key feature being keeping pieces of paper secretly in his lap. If this last method of spirit writing is the one he did use, it no doubt would have contributed to his later development of billet work.
It would seem to cover all the descriptions except for when the sitter actually saw writing appear on the paper. But since this is the only time this was recorded, we have to consider the possibility that the sitter was simply wrong on this point; and only imagined he saw the writing appear. The others didn’t say they saw the writing as it appeared, only that they all read it. On the other hand, Foster could have been experimenting with combining the techniques of switching papers along with the use of invisible ink. This would be so that when sitters would later try to reconstruct what happened, the methods would partially cancel each other out. But more likely is that the sitter enhanced the effect in his own mind.
Note that the papers were not thrown on the floor during the first sitting. This changed with the second séance as Foster may have attempted to improve his technique by having the papers thrown to the floor. In this second sitting the brothers received a personal communication from their departed sister. The name of the sister might have been mentioned at the previous séance or secured by Foster in the interim in order to use it here.