Charles Foster – Part 05

Part Five


A couple of weeks later, Dr. Davis responds to the editor of the Boston Courier dated January 7, 1858.  That letter was reprinted later in the week by the Banner of Light on January 23rd.  He vigorously defends his position and actions saying, “It is quite unnecessary that I should deny having used the egotistical nonsense attributed to me in that article; and I doubt not that the rational portion of my audience on that occasion will feel that little reliance can be placed upon any statement of facts made by a person capable of such gross perversions of the language of another.  His (Archer) ability to pervert language seems fully equaled by his ability to misstate facts.”

Davis claims that there were only a few spiritualists in the audience.  He said that their expectations of him actually demonstrating how physical manifestations occurred was never advertised by him and he certainly would not perform legerdemain tricks on the Sabbath.  He said that he only promised to “deliver a lecture in opposition to Spiritualism,” by giving accounts of exposures by himself and others.  It was at the end of his two hour talk that he was interrupted with demands to demonstrate the methods of fraudulent mediums.

He finally consented and while placing his hands in apparent contact with a desk, produced the same rapping noise usually encountered at séances.    He takes issue with Mr. Archer in not mentioning this in his letter.  He goes on to state at length how he never made a pledge to go to Salem and that he would do a trial in Lynn, feeling that it was the Salem residents turn to come to his town.

Davis acknowledged the note from Archer requesting that he meet Charles Foster.  The doctor not knowing who Foster was, subsequently made inquires about him his character.  He wrote back to Archer declining the invitation stating that “a proper sense of self-respect forbade my entering into any such arrangement.”  But he did say he would meet with any mediums “against whom  there were no personal objections.”

In response to this Dr. Davis was visited at his office by Mr. Archer, a Mr. George W. Parsons and Charles Foster.  Davis says the first thing they said was to try to induce him to tell them who was denouncing Foster’s character to him and to such an extent.  The doctor refused to tell them.  He went so far as to say that after meeting the medium, that he felt even more strongly about the lack of Foster’s character.  Foster being 24 years old at the time, makes one wonder what deficiencies about his character seemed to be circulating in some circles.  Could this be the “Grubby” side of Charles Foster?

According to Davis, Foster came across in a “simpering and silly manner” when he tried to expound upon his proficiency as a medium saying he was a real prodigy.  Davis quotes Foster’s defense of his abilities mocking his apparent lisp saying, “I can aththure you, Mr. Davith, that my character ath a medium ith unthurpathed.” Might Davis be implying that Foster was gay and that was the deficiency?  This is the only reference to Foster having a lisp which doesn’t exactly reflect well on Dr. Davis for printing it as such.  Even though Davis had already made up his mind not to test Foster, he still inquired as the nature of his manifestations.  He writes upon question Foster that, “I found they consisted of rapping out messages, the thousand times exploded “ballot-trick,” and the often exploded trick of spirit writing under the table.”  This statement, made in 1858, comes as quite a surprise.  Davis even though probably exaggerating that the ballot-trick was exposed over a thousand times, is still a bit of a shock.  Not only have I not been able to uncover an earlier reference to billet work, but to hear that it was already exposed is amazing.  The same can be said of the spirit writing under the table.

Again, I have not found reference to earlier exponents of these techniques; not that they didn’t exist, but all evidence I have been able to uncover points to Charles Foster originating the billet or ballot test.  Davis pointing out these exposed techniques could have meant from the local platform stage and not necessarily recorded in newspaper accounts.

Upon hearing of Foster’s repertoire, Dr. Davis said he immediately prepared a table (whatever that meant), and requested a sitting, right then and there saving the time and expense of future testing.  According to Davis, Foster declined.  This would seem out of character for Foster who, at least in later years, would become used to accepting challenges.

A friend of Dr. Davis who was also present offered Foster one hundred dollars if he would perform successfully one of the aforementioned feats.  Foster again declined but said he would do them in Salem, but not Lynn.  The challenger accepted that condition and a meeting was arranged in Salem to test Foster.

Notwithstanding, the group continued to argue about whether Davis had actually originally pledged to go to Salem.  Mr. Archer was then candidly reminded by his friend Parsons that no such pledge by Davis was ever made.  In his letter to the editor, Dr. Davis once again insisted that he challenged Foster to a trial on the spot and a public trial, both of which he claimed were declined.

The friend of Davis who had offered Foster the $100 for a trial had apparently already previously gone to Salem for a sitting.  The gentleman detected Foster making raps by a simple, familiar trick.  Next the purported name of a dead relative was rapped out while the alphabet was called, but as the sitter had no such relative in the spirit world, he was not impressed.  The gentleman then had Foster rap out a name composed of only consonants, evidently signifying again that no person existed with such a name.

Next, Foster proceeded to demonstrate his spirit writing done under the table.  The sitter closely examined the paper and found that it has already been written upon by a sharp instrument.   At that point Foster terminated the sitting explaining to the gentleman that “when his motives were pure, his wishes would be gratified,” but doubting that the spirits would ever communicate with him again.  The same gentleman subsequently did not award Foster the $100.  He must have felt confident in offering the money as he was able to detect Foster at an earlier sitting.  This would also explain why Foster refused to be tested with this former sitter present.  However, no mention was made of the ballot-test.

Dr. Davis reports that a few days after this, a spiritualist called on Foster at his rooms in Salem.  Charles not being home, the caller wrote a note “in his own private cipher” and left it on the table for Foster to read when he returned.  The potential sitter returned a little while later to find Foster at home.  The visitor picked up the cipher and asked the medium what it was.  Foster, not realizing that the man in front of him was the one who had written it, said it was a medial [sic] prescription that he had received from the spirits.  He then carried on the deception and read it as though it really was what he claimed it to be.  Needless to say this did not impress the believer.  In fact the sitter later said that it had opened his eyes and to question the legitimacy of Charles Foster’s mediumship.

Dr. Davis closed his letter stating that it would be unreasonable to expect an accurate accounting of facts from spiritualists whose imaginations are so disordered that they think they see tables and chairs floating in the air by themselves.

One week later the Boston Courier published a sharp reply by Mr. Archer that was reprinted in the Banner of Light.  Basically the feud continued including a claim that Archer had spoken to at least twenty members who had attended the lecture and whom confirmed his original statement of facts.

George Parsons, Mr. Archer’s friend, who had gone with Foster to see Dr. Davis in Lynn also wrote to the Banner of Light regarding that visit.   He states he is compelled to state that while he, himself is not a spiritualist, Mr. Archer’s account of their meeting with Dr. Davis was substantially correct.  He also said he felt that the remarks made by Davis questioning Foster’s character were grossly misrepresented.

The next year 1858,  finds Charles Foster getting more well known due to word of mouth along with listings and articles in the Banner of Light.

C. H. Foster, Rapping, Writing and Healing Test Medium, No. 4 Turner St., Salem.

Again, note there is no mention of any type of message reading yet, only writing.  This was very similar to other classifieds of the time.  Foster would go on to regularly place ads in the Banner of Light.  In this issue alone there were fourteen other classified ads from mediums living throughout the northeast, most of whom did also did trance speaking and healing.  Many of these ads were repeated every week.

One of those mediums was, John V. Mansfield of Boston.  He advertising his services in answering sealed letters and became known as the “Spiritual Postmaster.”  More on him later.

It was sent in response to a statement made in another Boston publication, the Christian Watchman & Reflector.  It had quoted a Professor Liebig, a skeptic who addressed the phenomenon of table tilting and levitations.  The Professor had said, “placing the hands beneath the table, not on it, would preclude all possibilities of any movement, providing the table was an honest one.”

The writer to the Banner of Light disagreed and went on to praise the mediumship of Charles Foster saying that he exhibited the most striking spirit manifestations they were ever privileged to see.  They believe that Foster surpasses any other medium for physical manifestations and that everything was done with utmost fairness, satisfying the conditions imposed by the skeptics in attendance.

The writer goes on to describe Foster’s manifestations: musical instruments produced harmonious sounds, spirit writing, sitters being touched by unseen agencies and rapping.  Raps were heard spelling out whole sentences as well as the correct names of the spirits.  These responses were accomplished with the aid of the alphabet, a rap being sounded when the correct letter was mentioned or pointed to on a card.*

The most impressive manifestation was the table levitation.  It mysteriously floated off the ground even though two of the men used considerable strength in trying to prevent it.  It was noted that even though the weight was applied to only one side of the table, it still raised perfectly level.  This levitation was repeated several times.  The writer felt that witnessing this demonstration of table levitation by Foster proved the falsity of Professor’s Liebig’s assertion and wished it explained how these manifestations were produced.

In support of that letter, the Banner of Light reprinted an article from the Newburyport Herald which completely agreed with the original writer.  They state that whatever the Harvard College professors may say, people will still believe their own senses, however impossible the phenomena seems to be.  They go on to state that Mr. Foster’s recent sittings in their city had caused much excitement and that he is indisputably the best test medium in that part of the country.  The editors closed by saying that they welcome their scientific friends to investigate the validity of their opinions or if wrong, where the delusion lies.

It is interesting that in this last article they state that along with all of Foster’s usual manifestations, he was also able to write backwards and forwards while trance writing.  Since he could do this on top of the table in view of the sitters, it would be easy for him to do so before a séance in preparation of the “spirit writing” manifestations described earlier.

The levitation of a table is often referred to as “table tipping” even if it is not wholly rising off of the floor.  I will use this convention unless otherwise noted.  As to Foster’s table tipping, if this description is accurate, then it is possible that one of the two men trying to hold the table down was actually a confederate of Foster aiding him in lifting the table.  The description being as vague as it is, it is difficult to speculate further as to the exact method Foster used.

During another séance in the beginning of March in Newburyport, the table that Foster used in the previous sitting was broken due to the violence of the manifestations.  The table was replaced just before these four new sitters arrived and were informed as such what had happened.   This led them to conclude that this table must then be free from preparation.    The usual raps were heard, spelling out the names of loved ones.  When a particular name was acknowledged by one of the sitters, the table in response, started rocking violently back and forth.  Despite the efforts of the sitters to hold it down, the table rose two feet off the floor several times.  This sitter’s coat sleeve was pulled at with considerable force.  The spirit then touched each of the other sitters in turn and pulled the chair out from one of them.

Next a violin was laid on the floor and soon its strings were being plucked as if being tuned.  Then the bow was wielded by an unseen force and then the violin landed in the lap of one of the sitters.  A request was then written out through Foster that the sitter should take the violin into his hand where the spirits will pull it away from him.  This was done and with enough force that it struck another sitter.

No mention of the lighting conditions at this point.  During the writing phase of the séance, presumably it had to be lit enough to read the responses.  Was it lit the same for these other manifestations?

A card which had been privately marked was thrown on the floor.  When it was taken up a moment later, the name of one of the sitters mother was found written on it.  The writing was in a “very fine and distinct hand.”

The author of this letter to the Banner of Light concludes saying this sitting lasted two hours.  He somewhat ambiguously states that what they witnessed was founded in the laws of the universe but wasn’t sure if there was any practical use for them.  The writer thought the manifestations could be due to spirits, electricity or the odic force.  But he did feel that these manifestations demand investigation for truth’s sake.

The card having been written on by a “very fine and distinct hand” would tend to reinforce the notion that the billets were switched rather than being written on during the séance.  The breaking of the table and the substitution of another just before the sitters arrived could also be interpreted as just the opposite of the writers opinion.  A new table was brought in specifically because it was gaffed or faked in some way.

In another letter to the editor of the Banner of Light dated March 9, 1858 and signed by one, “Veritatis” [sic].  (We presume the writer meant Veritas which is Latin for Truth.  But truth be told, someone spelled it wrong.)

The letter is from Newburyport, MA which is roughly 25 miles north of Salem.  The writer admits that while the town is very conservative and quite resistant to Spiritualism, the trend is changing rapidly.  He wants to share some of his reflections connected with his own experiences.

He claims that many of his community believe in Spiritualism but are afraid to openly confess such and fear the ridicule of non-believers.  He argues that the “science” of Spiritualism has converted many atheists into believing in God while more traditional sects have failed to do so.

The writer confesses that for a long time he was a non-believer having been brought up with preconceived notions of religion.  But as his experiences started to contradict his beliefs, he vowed to give the subject the same candid examination he had given to other matters in his life.  And upon examination, became fully convinced in Spiritualism.

Over the past few weeks he attended a number of séances given by Charles Foster and came to believe him to be “one of the finest developed mediums” he had ever witnessed.  He goes on to say that many of the important people with the finest minds in Newburyport have also been convinced of Foster’s mediumship.

At one of Foster’s sittings two of the writer’s acquaintances who were unwilling to believe in Spiritualism, both came away as believers.  One of them had never been to a séance before as they adamantly did not believe in it but was induced to attend on this occasion.