by Bruce Cherney
The University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections has recently digitalized portions of its collection that can now be found at umanitoba.ca/libraries/ units/ archives.
On the website are photos and material on Prairie immigration, populist
politics, the Depression and Canada’s war effort, but a significant portion of
the new site is devoted to the Thomas Glendenning Hamilton Collection.
The website (umanitoba.ca/libraries/
units/archives/hamilton.shtml) has over 700 images as well as some textual records from Dr. Hamilton’s research into spiritualism. His research delved into telekinesis, teleplasm, trance states and other psychic phenomena.
Dr. Hamilton’s research garnered him world-wide attention and led to visits to his home by such spiritualism luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and former Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
When Conan Doyle arrived in
Winnipeg on July 1, 1923, the press welcomed him enthusiastically as the “
creator of Sherlock Holmes.”
At this time, Conan Doyle was the world’s most famous preacher for spiritualism. Sherlock Holmes was actually a means to an end for Conan Doyle, who believed his famous character provided him with a world stage to present the merits of spiritualism.
Conan Doyle had dabbled in spiritualism after reading an 1886 book called The Reminiscences of Judge Edmunds. The American judge wrote that he was still able to keep in touch with his wife even though she had long since passed into the spirit world.
But Conan Doyle became a true believer following the death of his youngest son, Kingsley, who succumber to pneumonia during the First World War. He attended a seance with a Welsh medium, and there his son is reputed to have talked to him. “It was his voice and he spoke of concerns unknown to the medium,” Conan Doyle said.
Conan Doyle’s leap in faith came at the time of human carnage associated with the First World War, which would greatly influence his generation and provide a boost for spiritualism as people tried to get in touch with loved ones who had died fighting in the war.
“The sight of the world which was
distraught with sorrow and which was eagerly asking for help and knowledge, did certainly affect my mind and cause me to understand that these psychic studies, which I had so long pursued, were of immense practical importance...,” he wrote in his 1926 two-volume book, The History of Spiritualism. “It was this realization which, from early in 1916, caused me and my wife to devote ourselves largely to this subject ... to travel to Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada upon missions of instruction.”
It is said that Conan Doyle spent nearly £200,000 ( a fortune in his era) proselytizing for spiritualism across the world.
Hamilton’s investigations into the psychic world started in 1918 at the urging of his friend Prof. William Talbot Allison, a United Church minister and professor of English at Wesley College (University of Winnipeg), who had investigated the Patience Worth spirit. Allegedly, Patience Worth was the 263-year-old spirit of an Englishwoman, who came to America and was murdered by aboriginals. Through St. Louis housewife Pearl Curran, Worth dictated over 5,000 poems, a play, several novels and other literary works.
Initial experiments with Allison and Rev. Dr. Daniel Norman McLachlan, another minister, convinced Hamilton “that telepathy was possible and did work.”
In 1920, Hamilton began his own experiments which continued until April 1935. In 1931, Dr. Bruce Chown, the founder of the Rh lab in Winnipeg, joined Hamilton in his scientific investigations into the paranormal.
Conan Doyle’s purpose in arriving in Winnipeg on Dominion Day (now Canada Day), besides the usual press interviews and lectures, was to meet with a circle of believers in spirits from the netherworld led by Hamilton. The circle was made up of 10 doctors, lawyers, clergymen and their wives.
Hamilton was a past-president of the Manitoba Medical Association, a member of the Dominion Council of the Canadian Medical Association, an elder in King Memorial Church, a member of the Winnipeg Public School Board from 1906 to 1915 and had been the Elmwood MLA from 1915 to 1920.
His medical and public service credentials were solid and are beyond dispute as were the credentials of many others who came to believe in spiritualism.
Hamilton’s interest in spiritualism intensified when he was introduced by his wife Lillian to neighbour, Elizabeth Poole, a Scottish immigrant, described by his daugther Margaret as a “plump, jolly, little person with a delightful sense of fun.”
Lillian urged Poole to attempt to see if she had psychic powers. The attempts were futile for a long time, according to Margaret, and then a “table suddenly tilted up on two legs and remained so for several minutes ...”
In her book, Is Survival a Fact? (1969), Margaret wrote that Poole’s psychic abilities steadily increased and she took part in 40 seances over the course of eight months. By this time, her father was thoroughly convinced that Poole’s powers were genuine.
Once a week, Hamilton’s circle would meet in secret to perform experiments to prove Poole’s telekinetic powers and her abilities as a medium. She was claimed to tilt, levitate and invert a small table with a simple touch of her hands.
When Poole contacted the spirit world, Hamilton would call out the letters of the alphabet and when the correct letter was reached, she would slap the table. Her hand slaps eventually spelled out a complete message.
“Lillian,” said Hamilton, according to his daughter, “I must give in. There is more here than meets eye or ear. Find me a group of people who will take this matter seriously and I will see what I can do about finding time to experiment further. What is ahead I do not know, but I must admit, to myself at least, that here is a region of fact which must be investigated along scientific lines.”
Being Scottish herself, Poole seemed to have an infinity for contacting Scottish authors. On April 22, she resurrected Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame. Prior to the visit of Conan Doyle, another Scottish author who was very much alive at the time, the circle had received 14 messages from Stevenson, some of them rather cryptic.
On the day of Conan Doyle’s visit, Poole tapped out the message, according to Hamilton’s seance notes at the University of Manitoba, “I — was best — work l ever did — was married.”
The circle finally found a reference by Stevenson to his brother in which he wrote. “As I look back, I think my marriage was the best move I ever made in my life.”
Conan Doyle firmly believed the woman wasn’t a charlatan, since “the little Scotch woman knows nothing normally of R.L.S., because she is not of a literary turn.”
In her book, Margaret wrote that Poole only read newspaper headlines, magazine articles and the occasional juvenile book (Stevenson?), “indicating to us that her interest in literary matters was practically nil.” Her letters also “betrayed her ignorance of basic grammar ...”
The skeptic might be more inclined to think that Stevenson’s quite famous writings would have been either read to Poole, or read by her, as a child in her native Scotland. Furthermore, the cryptic messages rapped out on the table by Poole did not require any great grammatical skills. The grammar in the messages did improve over time, but that can be argued as a direct result of Poole being constantly exposed to a highly-educated clientele — she was bound to better her grammar in this environment.
Conan Doyle, who admired Stevenson as a writer and was quite familiar with his works, was able to verify all the messages tapped out by Poole, though one line, which he said sounded like Stevenson, he was unable to place.
Writing in Our Second American Adventure, the world-renowned author said the circle in the Hamilton home “placed their hands, or one hand each, upon a small table ... It was violently agitated, and this process was described as ‘charging it.’ It was then pushed back into a small cabinet made of four hung curtains with an opening in front.
“Out of this table came clattering again and again entirely on its own, with no sitter touching it ... like a restless dog in a kennel, springing, tossing, beating up against the supports, and finally bounding out with a velocity which caused me to quickly get out of the way.”
The next day, Conan Doyle was interviewed by the press at the Fort Garry Hotel. With the press feasting on his words, Conan Doyle predicted that “Spiritualism will have swept the globe before the younger generation of today passes.”
He told a Winnipeg Evening Tribune reporter that: “Our teachings have thus far been greeted by the church with horror and amazement ... I feel now that I have arrived at the truth ... The day when it was held to ridicule with the talk of spooks is passed. It is the great religion of the western world and the people are accepting it.”
A Tribune writer engaged in a bit of humour when he suggested that the day’s headline should not be, “Throngs enter into Spirit of Dominion Day,” but “Spirits enter Throng on Dominion Day,” because of the presence of Conan Doyle on the nation’s birthday.
When Conan Doyle lectured the following day at the Walker Theatre (now Burton Cummings Theatre which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary) before 1,800 people, he attacked those who scoffed at spiritualism, saying only those who had
experimented with the paranormal could express an “opinion ... worth anything.”
He claimed that life after death was a proven fact, citing as evidence the experimentation done by practitioners of spiritualism. During seances, “The dead were striving to bring into the world a message of immortality,” a Winnipeg Free Press article on Conan Doyle’s lecture said.
“The most important thing in Spiritualism was not the return of the dead, although that was an enormous consolation, but was the message they gave us to the life after this.”
The day after the lecture, Conan Doyle and his wife took part in a circle presided over by “a woman of the Blavatsky type,” who succeeded in changing water into wine and spoke words attributed to the
deceased, according to Conan Doyle.
The “strange circle” seemed to baffle the author, who professed that: “I cannot claim that I saw anything evidential with my own eyes, and yet I am convinced that my informant was speaking truth so far as he saw it, when he claimed that he poured water into a chalice and that it had been transformed.”
Actually, any woman would have had little difficulty fooling Conan Doyle, since he once wrote that “nearly every woman is an undeveloped medium.”
Conan Doyle was quite pleased with his Winnipeg visit, and in Our Second Adventure to America wrote “that Winnipeg stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possibilities. There are several Spiritualist churches and a number of local mediums of good repute.”
Conan Doyle went to his grave still believing in spiritualism.
Hamilton increased his range of
experimentation with Poole, and began to dabble in ectoplasmic photographs. Unfortunately, the photos appear so fraudulent — so-called ectoplasm bears a striking resemblance to cotton gauze — that one wonders who would be foolish enough to believe in them.
But, people were fooled.
Isaac Pitblado, a Winnipeg lawyer who sometimes attended Hamilton-sponsored seances, said the doctor took great care during seances to ensure authenticity. “The films taken that showed an extra phenomena, other than the invited guests, was not a fake, or trickery,” he added.
Conan Doyle also believed in the appearance of ectoplasm from the mouths or other body parts of mediums and wrote that scientific experiments had proven its existence. But what he wrote as evidence was simply alleged eyewitness accounts from
individuals who saw “a fleecy cloud” or “vapour” emerge from a medium’s mouth and then solidify into “a plastic substance.”
Among Conan Doyle’s friends was Henry Houdini, the great escape artist and magician. It would seem a strange friendship since Houdini spent years successfully uncovering the tricks used by mediums and their accomplices to dupe the unsuspecting.
Yet, Conan Doyle had an explanation for Houdini’s ability — Houdini was himself a great medium! Of course, Houdini vehemently denied Conan Doyle’s
assessment of his insightful prowess in proving mediums were flimflam artists who used conjuring tricks.
Houdini said there were 20,000 practicing mediums, and “if spirits are genuine, you think they’d warn us. There’d have been no passengers on the Titanic, no deaths in the San Francisco earthquake ... you know what the lowest form of life is — the medium! They’ve used my art (conjuring) to betray humanity.”
Today, Canadian-born conjurer James “the Amazing” Randi has taken over from Houdini, revealing the tricks of those purporting to be psychic or possessing the ability to contact the dead. Since 1986, he has been offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can prove they are “psychic.” The prize remains unclaimed.
As a budding 15-year-old magician in Toronto, Randi attended a local spiritualist church where “psychic” miracles were said to occur.
“Watching the preacher divine the contents of sealed envelopes handed by parishoners, Randi ... was outraged,” according to a June 13, 1988 Time magazine article by Leon Jaroff called Fighting Against Flimflam. “‘He was using the old one-ahead method,’ Randi explains, still indignant. Striding to the pulpit, he fished one of the opened envelopes out of a wastebasket and accused the preacher of cheating. An uproar followed and Randi was arrested for disturbing a religious meeting. At the police station, he vowed that he would someday fight back against those who defiled his art.”
A brief explanation of the one-ahead method from the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia is that the magician knows what is inside one of the envelopes and then uses that information to stay one step ahead of the audience. “When the magician is supposedly predicting the contents of the first envelope, he is really reciting what he has already read from another envelope that he opened secretly. When he opens the envelope to ‘check’ his answer, he is actually reading the information so that he can make the next ‘prediction.’ The final envelope that is opened is either a decoy that does not contain any message, or is actually the envelope at which the magician had peeked inside at the start of the trick.”
Hamilton may have been the victim of a flimflam, but he did claim to be careful when researching the paranormal. For example, he used a battery of 11 cameras to photograph table shaking, ectoplasm, etc.
The full extent of his experimentation became public years after his death, when his son James Hamilton (1915-1980) edited his father’s records for the book, Intention and Survival: Psychical Research Studies and the Bearing of Intentional Actions by Trance Personalties on the Problem of Human Survival.
“I exercised an untrammeled choice in the matter of the mediums whom I observed,” said Hamilton in the book, “and exercised a constant and complete control of the physical conditions of each and every experiment in which we took part. I used, to the fullest extent, my critical faculties in the examination and evaluation of results and held, above all, a fixed determination to repeat productive seances over and over again, until the phenomena were established, not once, but many times. Only by this attitude, as I saw it, could health in these matters be maintained.”
When experimenting at his home at 185 Henderson Hwy., he asked four questions:
1. Do we have paranormal abilities, potentials for awareness and communication and action that we do not fully realize?
2. Can they be observed, measured and evaluated?
3. Are these abilities psychological or physical or both?
4. Do these capabilities continue to function after the experience of physical death? In other words, “Is there survival after death?”
The most famous case of trickery was a series of 1917 photos taken by two girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire supposedly cavorting with fairies. Most scoffed at the alleged photos of little people, but Conan Doyle wrote a book defending their authenticity. “And what a joy is in the complete abandon of little graceful figures as they let themselves go in the dance,” Doyle wrote.
The girls confessed their hoax in 1983 — the fairies were cutouts — long after Conan Doyle had died.
Writing in the Manitoba History article, Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventures in Winnipeg, Michael W. Homer said: “There is no evidence that either Conan Doyle or Hamilton knowingly perpetuated fraud. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that Conan Doyle would have associated himself with anything unless it was absolutely trustworthy.”
The problem, said Homer, is that the two, despite their medical training which demanded objective and verifiable means, began to replace “proof” with “faith.”
Conan Doyle should have taken the advice of his fictional character, Holmes, who said: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”
“No matter what evidence of deception or fraud is presented,” said Randi in the Time article, “there will always be people who really don’t want to know that there is no tooth fairy.”
Randi has a plausible explanation for Hamilton’s belief in spiritualism, despite his high level of education and scientific training.
Randi said, in an interview with the on-line magazine thespecticexpress.com, if he was able to choose his own audience, “I would choose an audience of scientists because they think logically and rationally and in a straight line and they come to the wrong conclusion because magicians or conjurers of various kinds such as the scam artists who speak to the dead ... don’t work in a straight line at all. They work the same way that conjurers do. They bend some corners, and they run around in sharp turns; it’s not a straight line, they (scientists) think logically and rationally and that’s not the way we (conjurers) work as people who deceive others.”
Though still practiced today by a smattering of “true” believers, spiritualism has been primarily relegated to the dustbin of history as a fad.
In 1933, Hamilton resigned his teaching position at the Winnipeg General Hospital due to ill health. His last article, Reality of Psychic Force, appeared in Light, Vol. 55, No. 2828, on Thursday, January 10, 1935. He died of a heart attacke on April 7, 1935 at age 61.
Rev. Dr. Allison, according to an April 16, 1935, Winnipeg Evening Tribune article, said the 1,200 people who attended Hamilton’s funeral were not drawn “by morbid curiosity but by respect and affection ... (and) should impress all of us once more with the fact that goodness, integrity, kindness and force of character make a powerful appeal to the majority of Men.”
“What shall I say of this man, this elder, this excellent physician, this soul honest and unaffected, and friendly, enduring and courageous?” wrote Dr. Bruce Chown, following Hamilton’s death, in a tribute to him for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “His was no easy fight. He had faced derision and ridicule and calumny and, smiling, turned their thrusts upon his sword of truth ... From table rappings he passed to observations on the apparent animation of dead things, to trance speech and writing, to the photography of masses extruded from the bodies of mediums, masses at first amorphous, later moulds into a general likeness of known dead. These phenomena were all genuine.”
It wasn’t too long before the Hamilton family was in contact with “T.G.” through the medium Mary Marshall who challenged the doctor through the spirit guide Dawn.
Margaret wrote that among the messages received from her father were:
• “Strange, but to myself I seem to have quite a substantial body. I do not walk as formerly, but neither do I fly; but I manage to get over space with incredible rapidity.”
• “I see you Lillian, as a spot of vivid light but to me you seem tenuous. It is the old question of adjusting to one’s environment.”
• You may wonder if we wear clothes. As you are, so we are clothed, only we do not need to wear the same kind of clothes as you on earth.”
• “You asked me some questions but I did not quite get them. Speak them out loud and I may be able to get them.”
Upon Conan Doyle's death on July 7, 1930, the Margery Group — named for the medium Margery Crandon, of Boston — according to her husband Dr. L.R.G Crandon, attempted to contact Doyle as he passed into the spirit world, “and, for the first time in over three years, Walter (their spirit guide; who also contacted the Hamilton group, according to Margaret) did not come through. A perfectly reasonable explanation was given by Mark, one of Walter's helpers, who manifested himself at this sitting. He said, in effect, ‘Walter is busy as one of a reception committee to a great Spirit, newly arrived.’”
Of course, the “great Spirit” was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“‘Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,’ said Holmes.”