This is the last in my letter of the month series and I thought I’d end by exploring another side of Wallace and write about his interest in Spiritualism.
The letter was written to William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925), a friend of Wallace’s and a fellow Spiritualist. Barrett, a physicist and parapsychologist published accounts of his experiments with thought transference in the journal Nature in September 1876. It caused such controversy that Barrett felt compelled to found a society for like-minded individuals - thus the Society for Psychical Research was born in January 1882 - a society that Wallace became involved in.
WP2/4/1: Wallace was made an honorary member of the Central Association of Spiritualists in 1882
Wallace’s letter to Barrett was written on 18 December 1876 and opens with Wallace inviting Barrett to lunch with him at his home in Dorking as he would like to “take advantage of any opportunity that you may have to test the power of sensitive’s to see the "flames" from magnets & crystals; & also to feel the influence from them”.
Wallace became more interested in Spiritualism on his return from the Malay Archipelago and became actively involved in the spiritualist community, attending séances and writing about them - he even kept a notebook of séances he attended and phenomena experienced. His interest in Spiritualism garnered him criticism from some in the scientific community who thought his interest and belief in it lost him some scientific credibility. Never one for really being too bothered about what others thought of him, Wallace continued to be vocal and expound his beliefs. He thought it rash that scientists dismissed it out of hand and believed Spiritualism could really benefit from scientific investigation.
The main part of Wallace’s letter to Barrett concerns the trial of Henry Slade (1835-1905). Slade was an American 'slate-writing' medium, meaning he would place a small slate piece and chalk under a table during his séances and would claim spirits would use it to write messages. However, there were episodes where he was accused of being a fraud and writing the messages himself. In 1872, in New York he was caught swapping slates during a séance (one blank and one with writing on) by someone using a secret mirror.
In 1876 in London, Ray Lankester caught Slade in the act by seizing a slate that had writing on before the spirit was said to have written on it. Slade was prosecuted for fraud.
In the letter Wallace asks Barrett to sign a memorial for Slade and talks about the case
“You will have heard no doubt of the Treasury having taken up the prosecution of Slade. Massey the Barrister, one of the most intelligent & able of the Spiritualists (whose accession to the cause is due I am glad to say to my article in the Fortnightly) proposes a memorial & deputation to Government protesting against this prosecution by the Treasury on the grounds it implies that Slade is an habitual imposter & nothing else, & that in face of the body of evidence to the contrary, it is an uncalled for interference with the private right of investigation into these subjects.”
It is interesting to read letters that explore the many other facets of Wallace. Spiritualism was a big part of his life and we have many letters in Wallace Letters Online that attest to this.
Wallace Correspondence Project