Monday, October 26, 2009

Attack of the “Electric Eel”

Part Two of Out of This World: Death, Ghosts, and the Roots of Theosophy

Most religions tell us that the soul goes somewhere after death. But where? My own research began many years ago in Vermont, as I looked for answers to the mystery surrounding a family of 19th Century mediums and the unusual people who were attracted to their “ghost shop.”

The quest had begun with two books, one a present from friends hoping to interest me in Theosophy, the other an antique volume on the works of Shakespeare that had "materialized" in my apartment from an unknown source. On the surface, they couldn't have been more different.

The Secret Doctrine, written by Helena Blavatsky, was a spiritual work of enormous scope, while Ignatius Donnelly's magnum opus, The Great Cryptogram, purported to prove, through historical evidence and a mathematical cipher in Shakespeare's plays, that the real author was Francis Bacon. Blavatsky claimed her book had been "channeled" through her by Secret Masters; Donnelly rested his case on science and deductive reasoning.

For several years I studied the books, driven by a sense that having them was no accident. At one point, I noticed that both had been published in Britain in 1888. An intriguing coincidence, its significance was reinforced by the memory of a silver dollar I'd carried in my pocket for many years. It was issued the same year.

Fueled by synchronicity, I looked deeper, and ultimately uncovered a connection between Theosophy and Vermont. In 1874, Blavatsky had visited Chittenden, a small town near Rutland, to observe a family of mediums. That visit resulted in her meeting with Colonel Henry Olcott, who was also investigating psychic phenomena. Their alliance led directly to the founding of the theosophical movement.

In the end, I wrote Spirits of Desire, a novel based on events surrounding the initial meeting of Blavatsky and Olcott. Here is the conclusion of a scene in which Dr. George Miller Beard, a popular New York surgeon who had come to Vermont to debunk the existence of ghosts, gets a surprise when he tries to disprove the phenomena with an electric gadget. The narrator is Theodore Noyes, a young doctor:


Undaunted, Beard pulled the curtains aside and was about to charge into the closet when he was jerked back, then blown across the stage into the wall. At exactly that instant Honto and Pritchard were enveloped in the light, which imploded in a violent flash and then vanished.

Meanwhile, Horatio propelled himself against the intruder, flailing at Beard until several men pulled him off. The doctor cowered on the floor, shielding his face. When he rose again, however, he sneered, "Nice trick. But where is he?"

Approaching somberly, Olcott said, "Gone. You saw it yourself."

"I saw a show. An amusing show, but nothing more."

"You must be joking," Theo said. He was almost as amazed by Beard's denial as by what he had just seen.

"Hardly. The joke is that you accept this hogwash. Pritchard is obviously a member of the ensemble. Why else choose him to conduct the experiment. Very clever."

Olcott protested, "You can't believe that."

"It's a fraud and they know it," Beard barked back. "Let someone get close to the illusion, and you see what happens."

Could it have gone any other way? Theo had to wonder. Beard couldn't allow a successful outcome. After all, success for the Eddys was defeat for him. No, his reaction was completely predictable. But other aspects of the evening were harder to explain: the spirits themselves, for example, or what had happened to Ed Pritchard, or how Horatio had managed to get from the back of the room to the closet door without passing by the audience.

Gathering his equipment, Beard struggled to rebuild his case and regain his composure. Pritchard and the phony ghosts had escaped out the closet window, he claimed, and anyone who thought otherwise was a gullible fool.

Olcott objected, defending his own investigation.

"Believe anything you want," Beard snapped. "But don't expect me to agree, or to be silent. I'm a scientist. And I cannot and will not remain mute in the face of gymnastics and cheap parlor tricks. Anyone who isn't blind can see that. My God, this isn't even a first-class hoax."

As Beard stormed out of the room, Delia walked up to Theo. "And what do you think, Dr. Noyes?"

"Theo, please."


"Yes, well, I'm stunned I guess. Where did that man go?"

Horatio, who had stalked Beard as far as the doorway, was quick to reply. His tone was deeply apprehensive. "They've taken him," he said.

"Who?" asked Olcott.

"The spirits."

The remark stunned everyone into silence. "They can't just take someone, can they?" Olcott asked darkly.

Horatio's reply was even darker. "I think something has gone wrong."

Alone later in his bare hotel room, Theo wondered, was it real? The question terrified and consumed him. And if it was, what to do? A man had disappeared and violent spirits roamed the Earth. What would his father say? Investigate. At the moment he felt more like running away.

Had all of this been unavoidable? In hindsight, he thought so. And did that make him a fatalist? He'd never believed it before. As far as he knew, he was an activist. Unlike his father, he believed in his own free will and expected no help from God or heavenly guardians. Life was an open proposition for him, a game full of options leading to errors or gains. But in the Circle Room, and even before that, he’d felt the pull of a hidden hand.

What he had just seen contradicted his entire view of the world. If Beard was a positivist, what was he? Well, not merely an evolutionist. Darwin's notion of chance variations as determining factors in a struggle for survival wasn't nearly enough. Evolution required a cause, and it had to be active, creative, and new at each moment. Beard's philosophy denied the possibility of purpose in life. It was radically mechanistic, a negation of will itself. But Theo's philosophy negated the negation. His universe was neither a pointless machine nor a pre-printed scroll. A vital sense without beginning or end created his path as he traveled it.

Until now, he had hesitated to accept the idea of clairvoyance because it implied that the future was fixed. For Theo, the future was the world of alternatives, determined by nothing but the present. That was always the point of selection. His vital sense carried life on. It filled the universe, an immense consciousness shared by every being, a creative spark. Feeling it was the truest form of freedom. During the seance he had joined that consciousness. It had happened at the moment when Honto absorbed the electrical current. The shock had jolted him, beyond intellect, reason, analysis. He felt as if he had taken the charge along with the ghost. Maybe the same thing had happened to Horatio. But if that was true, why had it catapulted him into violence rather than insight? And how? According to witnesses, he had leapt more than 20 feet.

Was any of it possible? And if anything he had seen was real, then why wasn't all of it? Couldn't Beard's battery have altered the basic current that flowed through all of them? Couldn't the phantoms be enslaved souls, losers in a cosmic game of evolution, trapped between Heaven and who-knew-where? He imagined a place of spiritual darkness, quite near the physical world, a region filled with beings who had failed to effectively discipline their wills. Robbed of bodies, these failures wandered, lonely and despairing, looking for a way out. Sometimes they found one – William Eddy, their link with the material world.


Returning home without learning much, George Beard gave a newspaper interview in which he concluded that it was all a hoax, accomplished through disguises and convincing only because the witnesses were “weak-brained.” As he put it in The New York Sun, “In this land of marble and mountains the natives are drunk with excess of beauty and live in a moral state somewhat analogous to chronic alcoholism.”

Even the Rutland Herald, no friend of the Eddy family, was incensed. “We characterize him [Beard] as a humbug and a conceited ignoramus,” the editor wrote on Nov. 18. Olcott took to calling him the “electric eel.”

To be continued on November 28. Part One: Out of This World

On November 8 from 1-4 p.m., I will discuss Spirits of Desire at The Sacred Bean in Prescott, Arizona. To purchase a copy of the book or find out more, post a comment to this website.

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