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Attending seances and Wallace's fame in America

Attending seances and Wallace's fame in America (page 1)

Catalogue number: WP1/5/14

Letter from Wallace to his daughter Violet describing séances in Boston, and his bashfulness at being complimented, dated January 1887.

Wallace gives a full account of his extraordinary observations at séances in Boston. In the first séance described, Wallace put gummed paper 'privately marked' over a locked door to make sure no one entered the room once the séance began. In a second séance, Wallace noted that many of the 'spirits' appearing were similar to those of the first séance. Was this a coincidence? Perhaps, absorbed by events, Wallace does not question the similarities between the two séances.

Two of the spirits spoke to Wallace personally. 'This was most interesting,' he remarks. One was a beautiful woman who 'could not speak much' but certainly seemed to recognise Wallace. Another was an old gentleman, 'rather short...with white hair and beard...who bowed and nodded, looked pleased' and then shook Wallace's hand.

Wallace struggled to recognise the man. Not his father. Not Darwin. Eventually he realised it must be his cousin Algernon Wilson, although he imagined Algernon to be taller than this spirit. When Wallace questioned him with 'is it Algernon?' the spirit shook his hand, nodded and 'seemed delighted' that Wallace had recognised him. Wallace was astounded. No one in America knew of Algernon who had lived in Australia. Algernon had died recently, which convinced Wallace that 'he was more likely than anyone' to come to him as a spirit. In reality, there was a good chance that an old man with a beard would look similar to any friend or family member.

The dim light of the room and the expectation that strange things could happen may have helped to convince Wallace. As a scientist he had an enquiring mind. Based on the evidence presented he could find no explanation other than supernatural. Perhaps the idea of spirits visiting was of comfort, enabling spiritualists to view death more positively.

When Wallace wrote this letter, he had been in Washington for two weeks. Wallace travelled around the USA and Canada on a lecturing tour between 1885 and 1887.

He remarks that Washington is 'a most beautiful city - wide streets all with trees and plenty of squares and gardens and monuments'.  The only downside of his trip seems to be his fame! 'The people here are very civil, and are so enthusiastic in their compliments that they make me quite ashamed! Everyone says it is an honour to meet me...'

Wallace was probably the most famous British naturalist at this time. His comment shows that despite his great scientific achievements, Wallace remained modest and didn't want to cause a fuss.

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Letter to Alfred Russel Wallace from the Royal Society, about his Darwin Medal award

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