Wallace Letters Online

Share this:

Record number: WCP1810

Add to My list
Sent by:
Richard Norris
Sent to:
Alfred Russel Wallace
[not recorded]

Sent by Richard Norris, [none given] to Alfred Russel Wallace [none given] on  .

Record created:
21 November 2011 by Catchpole, Caroline


No summary available at this time.

Record contains:

  • letter (1)

View item:

LETTER (WCP1810.1699)

A typical letter handwritten by author in English and signed by author.

Held by:
Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham
Finding number:
Copyright owner:
Copyright of the Richard Norris Literary Estate.

Physical description

Transcription information




My dear Mr Wallace.4

I am indebted to you[.] Many thanks for your considerable and judicious criticism on my essay or letter on the modus operandi of the physical phenomena of Spiritualism. There were some points in your criticism which appeared to me of so much importance as to cause me to withdraw the M.S. for a time from the hands of the Editor of the Spiritualist.

You say the public should be placed in a position to judge of the circumstances & conditions under which the phenomena took place so that they may know that no fraud or clever confining was practised.

This opinion would have great force for me if I had much desire to substantiate the facts for the public but I think this has been done so often & so completely that it now amounts almost to a waste of valuable time & that a better thing to do will be seriously & earnestly to devote oneself to the real nature of the phenomena.

If we want to convince all the world that our facts are facts before we begin to clarify & educe the laws and principles upon which the [[2]]5 phenomena rest we shall waste our powers & further our lives without having in the end anything to show for it.

The only thing I care for now is to make myself sure that the foundation upon which I rest & build is secure.

If I could show experimental facts which would convince my scientific fellow workers I would willingly do so & present to them "spiritualism made easy["] but if the nature of the subject demands for everyone as it has done for me long years incessant toil -- great self abnegation, much bodily fatigue & pain & a Job like patience and resignation under constant disappointments that is not my fault. There are a few men for whose scientific work one feels so profound an admiration that we would willingly do what we could to show them that their attitude in this matter cannot fail to stain the escutcheon of their reputation -- apriori condemnation. Already a tarnish rests upon Faraday6, Tyndall7, Huxley8, Beale9, Thomson, and Rutherford10. From our knowledge of these earnest workers you must feel with me that a time must come sooner or later in their history when if life permits they will greatly retract. Scientific men are human and I find that upon matters in which their prejudice comes into play they are no longer scientific. [[3]]11

Take for example the recent letter of Huxley. How completely does it lay bare the weak side of this intellectual giant. "I take (he says) no interest in the subject" [and] "supposing the phenomena to be genuine they do not interest me" and why because spirits talk like old women, Bishops[,] archbishops, vicars & curates[;] ie [sic] to say none of these gentlemen embodied or disembodied talk wisely & sensibly enough for Prof[essor]: Huxley consequently he flings the whole genus overboard [sic]. Well as talkers & thinkers let them go. The bishops can take care of themselves & ought to take care of the spirits. What then. Have they no other aspects of use -- are not their bones, their muscles, their blood, their brains, their dynamics worthy of the attention of the great physiologist[?]. When I was a student of anatomy it never occurred to me that I should have got on better if I had Fellows of the Royal Society to dissect instead of the pauper that nobody owns. Prof[essor]: Huxley almost makes me regret that I had not a chance of getting out his solar plexus for demonstration.

If I were making an experiment on resuscitation it would be as equally interesting to me if the victim with his hand to his throat jabbered out -- ["]Damn you what are you at[?]["] as if he muttered in his delirium something about his [word illeg.]-argtaenoidei laterales et postiei & if I succeed in raising the dead in another way I am as a physiologist & [[4]]12 physicist not very mindful what they say so that they speak. The first question is does he breathe -- ie [sic] does he exist, this comes from one's brain. The next query comes from the heart, How does he feel -- so with the so called dead I want to know primarily whether they exist -- secondly the state of that existence -- supposing the phenomena to be genuine why should not Prof[essor]: Huxley take as much interest in these extinct animals as in others. If he can't because they happen to talk I would advise him to conduct the study as I do with with wool in his ears. Why not study them as he does bishops as phenomena of the 19th century[?].

But seriously will Prof[essor]: Huxley from his exalted position as the leading biologist of our times venture calmly to affirm that supposing the phenomena of the production of hands & arms as real & absolute as the human -- organisms[?] by which articulate speech can be produced -- supposing he knew absolutely that any or every portion of the human organism was capable of being produced in its material form, solid & impenetrable with all the anatomical and physiological characteristics of flesh, blood, bone &c[,] would he still say that the subject did not interest him[?]. Those who know him best know him far too well to believe him even should he affirm. The hurt is he does not believe the facts & so wild [[5]] and improbable do they seem that he does not call to trouble to investigate them.

I can pardon him for choosing to ignore & neglect the movement of material substances by some unseen & unknown agencies ie [sic] without human contact or human preparation or appliance, also the unproved assumption that solid matter can be passed through solid matter these he may leave to the physicist but it is impossible to acquit him of blame if he stubbornly refuses to investigate phases of the subject which belong to and influence his own special province of enquiry. He cannot be allowed to get rid of these things by a classification which puts spirits[,] old women [sic] & parsons into the same category for inasmuch as you have he has chosen to become the exponent of the anatomy & physiology of the two [word illeg.] vertebrates. Society now fairly requires of him a little attention in these particulars to the former now that spirits are showing us that under some circumstances at least they are as organised as ourselves. When physiologists have determined the nature of these organisms together with that of the phenomena of spirit mesmerism or control & the bearing of this on the great subject of insanity they may then be justified in indulging in sentimentalism as to what may or may not interest them all. Till then their duty is clear & well defined for they [[6]] have before them a great humanitarian problem[.] In the present state of affairs those who are interested (even if not he most capable) must carry on the work & the real work to be done seems to me not so much to be proselytizing the world as to be constructing for it new sciences by following up the facts we have to their natural issues & showing their touching point with that which is already known. The ordinary mind will attend to the dissemination of the mere facts -- the bricks so to speak. It is for the trained scientific mind to build the superstructure.

As to my own writings on this subject I am perfectly careless whether or no they may be received in my life time[.] I am only anxious they should be true[?][.] Perhaps my knowledge of human immortality helps me to be patient.

What earthly use is it my stating facts, conditions & circumstances when such men as DeMorgan13, Varley14, yourself, Huggins15, Crookes16, Edmonds17, Hare18 & an immediate host of others have both their acumen & integrity ignored.

I repeat the day for troubling about supporting facts with us is over as far as we are concerned. We will proceed to deal with those we have and can get. We will commence to study the thing with a will [and a] purpose. We must no longer stop asking do the spirits do such and such things. We know they do. We must ask the How and the Why & so learn to intensify the conditions to such a pitch of excellence as to make it easy for even [[7]] prejudiced men to accept than deny. The twitch of a frog's leg in the laboratory of Galvana19 [sic] , is a pifling[?] thing. The electric light and the atlantic [sic] cable cannot be ignored. The blackening of Horn silver was long a simple neglected fact, the science of photography appeals to man, woman & child. Steam was of no moment so long as it sang its own praises at the kettle spout or getting angry hissed at the slow stupidity of man.

When we reflect for what tiny beginnings our present experimental sciences have had their birth we should feel that we have here something which will eclipse all man has hitherto developed.

These then are my views as to the manner in which we should seek to force the acceptance of these things upon society & is therefore only in reference to your opinion & judgement that of consent to give a detailed description of what occurred at the two sittings. In the first place let me say that the medium was not hired a la Huxley at a guinea a seance & that the only preliminary was the letter of introduction to our friend Guppy20 which you so kindly gave me & which procured for me at once a most cordial welcome.

Seance 1. Room[;] an ordinary small front parlour on first floor in Highbury Hill Park. Furniture[;] an ottoman[,] a few chairs[,] piano & a small round table. Went into the room alone & made an exam[ina]tion of the place [and] paid special attention to [the] ottoman. Found nothing. Did not leave the room. A candle was then lighted & I assisted Mrs G[uppy] to close the shutters. Mrs G[uppy's] [[8]] light was blown out. Immediately something was deposited upon the hands of Mrs G[uppy] & my assistant. They did not make out what it was. In a minute or so it passed over & rested upon my hand & that of Mrs Guppy. Disengaging my index & second finger from Mrs Guppy's hand I felt with these as well as I could & came to the conclusion that it was a small box. At this time my two fingers were well raised on to the box which rested then mainly on Mrs Guppy's hand, two other distinct fingers patted mine playfully several times. I enquired of my assistant ["]are you holding Mrs G[uppy]'s hand?["] ["]Yes.["] ["]Are all hands being held?["] ["]Yes.["] The box then moved off our hands into the centre of the table & began to play on which my assistant exclaimed ["]that is Heine and Williams music box I know the tune["] (It is necessary to state here that two days before we had a sitting with these mediums)[.] It must be borne in mind that when my fingers were tapped no one in the circle besides Mrs G[uppy] could know what I was doing or the position of my fingers. The usual signal being given for a light.

It was afterwards requested through the raps that Mr C should take the place of my assistant. This being done & all hands held as before the light was again extinguished. Immediately something took hold of the left hand side of my coat collar & pulled me forward into a leaning position over the table & in greater proximity to Mrs Guppy]. Then a hand in every particular like a human hand commenced to manipulate my face. To Mr C I said ["]have you Mrs Guppy's right hand[?"] He replied ["]I have["] to my assistant. I said ["]Have you the hands of Mr G[uppy] and Mr C[?"] It will be observed that the only doubtful point in the circle at this time was was between Mr C and Mrs G[uppy] that is the only point not connected by myself[.] [[9]] Now the only way these things could have been smuggled into the room was under Mrs Guppy's dress. This I observed to be a silk one & my ears were wide open to detect the slightest rustle which I entirely failed to do during the darkness. Admitting the possibility of the concealment one could hardly not understand the manner in which they were produced noiselessly & without movement on the part of Mrs G[uppy] as we sat huddled together. The seance though interesting was not satisfactory to me. It did not amount to an absolute demonstration. Next day I explained what appeared to be its weak points to Mrs G[uppy] & requested that she would accede to other conditions which I proposed. This she willingly did at our next sitting.

Seance no[.] 2[.] Present[;] myself, my laboratory assistant Mr G.M., Mr C., Mr & Mrs Guppy. [I] examined the room as before. The arrangement of the sitters was as in the diagram.


Locked the room & gave key to assistant.

The new condition proposed was that every one should hold hands. This was complied with. Mrs Guppy's right hand was therefore held by my assistant, her left hand by myself. I also held Mr Guppy's right hand[,] my assistant held Mr C's left. Supposing fraud the only chance lay between the left hand of Mr G[uppy] & the right hand of Mr C.[,] ie [sic] to say this was the only point in the circle left uncontrolled by myself & [my] assistant. With this condition of affairs the [[10]] then [sic] came in with the other members of the little party with whom she had remained conversing. These consisted of Dr J[?] & Mr C. The door was then locked & the key securely placed in my pocket. It was broad daylight outside. I mention this because the door could not be opened without letting in a flood of light. This rendered the locking of the door an unnecessary proceeding. We sat down round the small table. The customary percussion sounds were immediately heard & by the alphabet requested that the light should be extinguished. Something was immediately thrown upon the table. It proves to be a corkscrew[.] I remarked that this was a very insinuating thing & might easily find its way in. It was also suggestive would they bring a bottle of wine? Almost before the words were out of my mouth, the clinking of glasses was heard & on striking a light an ordinary wineglass was placed before each of the sitters. The light was then again extinguished & in a moment some solid objects were placed upon the table -- eight -- a bottle of wine [and] a large cake weighing on its dish four or five lbs. It was then remarked that we had no way of cutting up the cake. Like being put out something thrown upon the table & immediately the cake was cut upon into five pieces & a piece thrown at each of us. The last object proved to be a knife. We drank the wine & ate the cake. A lady friend staying with Mrs Guppy affirmed that after we entered the room to hold the sitting she had seen this cake on a table in another room of the house[,] that in fact she had cut & eaten a piece of it. [[11]]22

& assistant. If one of the hands of the circle manipulated my face it was either the left hand of Mr C or the right one of Mr Guppy. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of Mr C. I believe his truthfulness has never been called into question. At my request this hand gave me very distinct evidences of its plastic & prehensile powers laying hold of and stroking my beard compressing my nostrils, closed itself & struck me repeatedly on the brow with the knuckles & lastly gave me a flat-handed blow over the eyes which caused flashes of light. It did in fact all that a human hand could have done & exhibited all the characteristics of a human hand. So natural & lifelike was it that spite of the circumstances I am continually haunted by the thought that it was in truth a human hand in fact were it not for the cumulative testimony which exists on the question of these hands which have so often been seen as well as felt & from the fact that 4/5 of this well attested phenomena of spiritualism can only be explained by predicating the existence of some such structure even which sometimes visible & at others invisible I would rather doubt the integrity of the best & most ingenuous friend I have than believe such an improbable thing as that a hand as capable & efficient as the human could be produced & dissipated within a few moments of time. I have come to consider that if these things are not true[,] human testimony is utterly worthless & we must never to that barbarism in which each man is suspicious of his fellow. At this seance many other things occurred such as the bringing of flowers & ferns all fresh & wet & entirely unimpaired, bent or crumpled. These appeared to be thrown upon the table from behind at a time as far as one can [[12]] tell when all hands were being held. As we were in the dark this was a matter of trust of course so far as the right hand of Mrs Guppy & the left hand of Mr C were concerned. Myself & assistant controlled every other point of the circle. How is it possible to conceive I find that one may have been humbugged without impugning the veracity either of Mrs G[uppy] or by supposing that both of these persons are susceptible to spiritual psychology[,] for is it not possible that Mrs G[uppy] in an unconscious trance state might be made to manipulate my face while Mr C was impressed with the idea that he still retained her hand[?] This would not be more wonderful than many things which result from submesmerism.

In the interests of science I explain these things to Mrs Guppy & request her to sit with me above & to allow me to hold both her hands. If under these circumstances a fifth hand puts in manipulating powers, there will remain only two hypotheses[;] either that my senses have been deluded or that some one was secreted in the room whom I failed to detect. After all a man knows his own know [sic] & his sleeve is as good a one to laugh in as anybody else's.23 [13]24

In these artificially produced parts of organisms we appear to have forms of non permanent matter. All forms of organic matter with which we have hitherto been acquainted require a considerable time for their disintegration & final dissipation under the influence of ordinary chemical laws. But here we have what appears to be organic matter got rid of rapidly in a quiet & odourless fashion. Both in the production & dissipation of these structures we have mystery that utterly transcends our conceptions & puts to the rout all our preconceived opinion of the order of nature. Supposing for example the power to exist of resolving these structures into their ultimate gases how are the vast volumes of these gases so liberated disposed of? To say nothing of the oxygen, nitrogen & hydrogen what about the carbolic acid? Besides it appears to me that in every case it is not enough to consider the formations of hands & arms, these must have some point of support somewhere to enable them to become acting, operative mechanisms & this seems to involve no less than the partial materialization of the entire spirit organism as a rigid tangible invisible form the point of contact or support of which is as with ourselves probably upon the floor of the room. The further we reason about this matter, the greater & more insuperable do our difficulties become till at length we find ourselves lost in an inextricable[?] maze; possibly for the want of some leading principle of fact to give us light. We know that these hands have [[14]] all the properties of material hands.That they appeared to be formed of organic matter & then we find them obeying laws which do not belong to matter as we know it consequently we are impelled to ask do we know all the properties & powers of matter? Is there no other way of composition & recomposition of organic forms than those we have been accustomed to observe[?]

Organic forms come & go in a profoundly mysterious way & all quite as miraculous as these modifications only it is familiar. There is however this difference in the usual order of nature both the phenomenon of production & destruction is a slow process & in the latter case involves the presence of disagreeable products while in the new case both sets of operation are rapid & untraceable. Again in the order of nature organic forms develope [sic] under liquid conditions. Here we have aerial production & yet they possess the softness & liquidity & plasticity which the presence of liquid gives. Here now you see we want the psychological society to determine absolutely whether these organisms are produced or whether spirits in some inconceivable way practise upon us some gross deceptions & whether they do so sometimes & not others.

What is a cell? Physiology answers a cell wall, nucleus, & contents. Still more modern physiology says the contents are really all that is essential to the definition & their contents are a living liquid. Protoplasm. Now what makes this liquid a living liquid in contradistinction to an ordinary or dead liquid. [word illeg.] it has powers of locomotion &c. Then these powers are conferred upon a liquid. What are these powers away & apart from such liquid? Is it not this superadded [sic] something which [[15]] may either be present or about that is the living thing? What is an organism then but a republic of these back lying dynamical powers operating in concert with matter & causing its elaboration into form & visible display of function. It is impossible to stop at the visible & tangible matter, further back we are driven into the invisible realm. We find the amoeba to have a soul [word illeg.]. Further still the the simplest protoplasm of the plant yea[?] [.] Further still inorganic matter has its dynamics yea[?]. Further still what you call forces need a soul force to move them. How is life imparted? By contagion. These dynamics are the spirit of matter. What then is matter? Well organic matter is principally condensed gas. What is gas? Diffused solid matter. Gas approaches the imponderable but is not imponderable [as] it approaches those still subtler forms of matter (magnetism electricity) which cannot be confined by other known forms of [word illeg.] matter. Admitting that a simple cell or minute mass of protoplasm possesses its imponderable dynamics. Why then aggregation of such cells must be regarded as representing aggregation of such dynamical units, hence a plant or animal when living must possess a nonsensuous dynamical organization [word illeg.] of these units. How this dynamical organization precedes organization & developes [sic] contemporaneously with it[?] Why then should it cease to be when the material substratum with which it has been associated ceases to be responsive to it by virtue of some major dislocation which no longer permits these finer & subtler influences to confer their living properties on ordinary matter hitherto dead & so set free for it material or grosser[?] force.

If one mass of protoplasms may become a serpent and then another a mouse a third a man & so on[,] is it not fair to infer [[16]] that protoplasm is governed & controlled by very diverse forces. The physical basis of life[,] Protoplasm[,] is only the physical basis of life -- nothing more. What it will be ultimately depends upon the contagion it has acquired in its linear decent depends in fact upon the hidden unseen ontological principles with which it has become associated. Plants are great mechanisms whose dynamical energies are mainly devoted to condensing gases into approximately dense matter in forcing in fact the proximate organic principles. Their dynamics work largely upon & control inorganic matter & raise it a stage higher into organic proximate principles. These principles are converted by the dynamics of the animal cell into animal tissues & forces. The imponderable dynamic region is beyond our [word illeg.].Its elements are not attracted by the inorganic force called gravitation neither are they amenable to be confined by any of our inorganic vessels. Were they so they would be subordinate to matter not its architect its shaper & controller. By their fruit only can we know them. By their results[?] in matter we infer their existence. This position can be maintained till life forms can be shown to be producible in other ways than be linear decent. When Tyndall and Huxley can make babies in their laboratories (without the aid of their wives) we will yield this point. Perhaps with a less evidence in the same direction.

But at the same time as individuation of matter proceeds[,] so a fortiori must it be with the dynamics which control for example from a single seed may come myriads of perfect seeds. Their dynamics may also be in a state of inactivity chained as it were by unsuitable external conditions & so they may be for a thousand years. [[17]]

But they are there & constitute the difference between what we call a live & a dead seed. One that will germ is one that will not [sic]. And the same external influences which will rot the one that is hand it over to ordinary chemical laws will place the other in a position to be amenable to the subtle dynamics which belong to it as a living seed [sic].

One of these conditions is easy mobility of its constituent atoms. May we then have such a thing as dry or Protoplasm & must it be again reduced to the liquid shape[?] state before the delicate life influences that are with it & within can move it to nutrition & individuation into special form.

We have been told that all life comes from the sun. Was there ever greater nonsense? Can the warmth of the sun account for the individuation of form? Can such a hypothesis explain why a hundred seeds produce a hundred different life forms[?].

What is a spirit? -- The unseen dynamical contribution of the animal. The degree of development which has been reached up to any given time of the life history of the creature -- aggregates of the imponderable unseen intangible elements & energies.

How how [sic] long do these imponderable being become again what we call flesh, blood & bone. How do these organizations[?] formed of the imponderable correspondence of the various tissues & elements of the human body again exhibit themselves on our plane[?].

Are imponderables necessarily aerial? Are they necessarily dry? Is a soul a dry thing? How much of a cell is dry solid matter? Are the terms wet & dry applicable to such things? By far the larger amount of animal [[18]] structure is[.]

There is no more difficulty in supposing blood than bone or any other tissue. From whence for example is the time ordained which give hardness to these structures & where does it go to after their dissipation[?] Can time essence be represented in the spiritual body[?] The fact is we cannot have any conception of these things.

When we have satisfied ourselves beyond all possible doubt that these things are[,] then we have a problem to which the nature of the sun is a flea bite.

The subtle & manifest movements of the hand are due to the contraction of extensor & flexor muscles which are placed upon the back & front of the ones of the forearm. Before proceeding to reason upon the spiritual[?] things we must eliminate every possible source of error.

This is the position of such men as you & I[.] We know absolutely that certain of the facts of spiritualism are genuine & this renders us more open to receive the rest & this state of mind doubtless renders us more susceptible to imposition. Knowing this it will be necessary to keep a greater watch over ourselves so that we may judge of every class of phenomena by itself.25


1. There is a catalogue/reference number inscribed at the top of the page, to the right of centre. It reads "US41/7/49/61".

2. There is a page number in the top right-hand corner, inscribed in pencil.

3. The letter is undated, and does not show the sender's address.

4. The correspondent is Richard Hill Norris (1831-1916). Professor of Physiology at Queen's College, Birmingham.

5. There is a page number in the top right-hand corner, inscribed in pencil.

6. Faraday, Michael (1791-1867). English scientist specialising in electromagnetism and electrochemistry.

7. Tyndall, John (1820-1893). Irish physicist, educator and glaciologist.

8. Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825-1895). English biologist and advocate of Darwin's theory of evolution.

9. Beale, Lionel Smith (1828-1906). British physician.

10. Rutherford, Ernest, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson (1871-1937). New Zealand-born British physicist.

11. There is a page number in the top right-hand corner, inscribed in pencil.

12. There is a page number in the top right-hand corner, inscribed in pencil.

13. De Morgan, Augustus (1806-1871). British mathematician and logician.

14. Varley, Cromwell Fleetwood (1828-1883). British engineer associated with the development of electric telegraph and transatlantic telegraph cable.

15. Huggins, Sir William (1824-1910). British astronomer.

16. Crookes, Sir William (1832-1919). British chemist and physicist.

17. Edmonds, John Worth (1799-1874). American lawyer and politician.

18. Hare, Robert (1781-1858). American chemist.

19. Galvani, Luigi Alosio (1737-1798). Italian physician, physicist and philosopher.

20. Guppy, Agnes Nichol (1838-1917). English medium.

21. A diagram of the sitters attending the seance is drawn within the text. The diagram shows a circle, representative of the table in plan, with five positions marked equidistant around the circumference. The positions, clockwise from the top, are marked in the following sequence: writer's assistant; Mrs Guppy; writer; Mr Guppy; and Mr C..

22. This page does not read sequentially with the previous page, and a page (or pages) appears to have been omitted from the scan.

23. The final part of the page has not been written upon.

24. There is a discontinuity in the character of the letter. It is possible, therefore, that some of the correspondence preceding this point may have been omitted.

25. The correspondence finishes at this point. There is no valediction or signature.

Please note that work on this transcript is not yet complete. Users are advised to study electronic image(s) of this document, if available.