Monday, October 31, 2016

October 31, 1908 - Olympics Conclude with Spiritualist Competition

Having lasted over six months since April, the third modern Olympic Games would be the longest ever held. It was packed with memorable moments, such as British runner Wyndham Halswelle winning a walkover gold in the re-run 400 meter race, his three American competitors refusing to participate since the call for re-running was based on unclear rules. In other debated events, the first runner to complete the marathon, Italian Dorando Pietri, was disqualified since he entered the stadium in a daze and ran the last leg backwards. No one questioned the success of Swede Oscar Swahn, who at 60 years old won gold in shooting and would become the oldest gold medalist ever at 64 in the 1912 Olympics. He returned for the 1920 Olympics at age 72 to set another record as the oldest athlete ever to compete in the games.

A young medium displays how high she can be levitated.
Other notable activities at the games included exhibitions of sports such as dueling and figure skating. None, however, would be as memorable as the display of spiritualism in which competitors worked with trained teams of spirits to give the most incredible demonstration of ghostly activity.

While contact with the dead occurs in ancient writings and oral traditions to time immemorial, modern spiritualism evolved out of the religious reform taking place in the United States during the 1840s. Disappointed in the establishment for its lack of voice against slavery, freethinkers went as far as calling for women’s rights and humane care for sufferers of mental illness. Out of this movement, young Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York, reported that they had been able to communicate with a spirit. Their fame grew but was soon eclipsed by Cora Scott, who began lecture circuits while the Fox Sisters had primarily held séances to a select few guests. Many other mediums began appearing on the popular stage throughout the nation and abroad, especially before the famous Ghost Club of London, directed at scientific investigations of ghostly phenomena.

For a generation, the western world was divided on the issue of contact with spirits. Many religious figures held it as witchcraft, spurring backlash that fed into several riots in major cities and the countryside. Skeptics spotted numerous frauds, but the 1887 Seybert Commission determined to the best of its judgment that about half their cases of rapping, spirit photography, and objects moved by unseen hands were genuine. Over time, it became a standard affair to contact a love one who had passed or attend a display of spiritualist feats as one might a circus. Famed magician Harry Houdini made a second career as an investigator for the FBI, discerning true mediums from those who were illusionists practicing tricks.

The spiritualism exhibition in 1908 featured several categories in which mediums competed. Mediums were judged on how high they could be levitated into the air, how loudly a prompted spirit could knock, and by the amount of ectoplasm produced by weight. Many brought their preferred spirits along with them, while others hoped to do their best with whoever might be wandering around the other side at the time.

Although such exhibitions would not be included in future Olympics, contact with the spirit world continued to be an important aspect of the twentieth century, especially following the large numbers of dead in the First World War. Most of the Olympic committee’s attention toward ghosts was in the search for frauds, such as the case in 1928 when Oscar Swahn returned, one year after his death, for another silver medal in shooting by possessing a younger athlete.


In reality, the Fox Sisters stated that their activities were a prank, with their infamous “rappings” actually being the popping of toe joints. Every case reviewed by the Seybert Commission was found to be a hoax.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

October 25, 1931 - Edison’s ‘Spirit Phone’ First Demonstrated

One week after his own death, Thomas Edison proved himself once more to be an incredible inventor. Using a device he had worked on in secret for a decade, his assistants were able to contact Edison beyond the grave. An astounded crowd of press and socialites heard the first public words sent via Spirit Phone, fittingly those of its own creator, “It is very beautiful over here!”

Edison had managed a legendary career as an inventor and businessman. After being fired from his telegraph job for an electric battery experiment gone awry that destroyed his boss’s desk, Edison pursued his passions in creating new devices, including the quadraplex telegraph (1874), a phonograph (1877), an incandescent lightbulb (1879). Through the years, Edison would collect over one thousand patents, many focusing on improving technology and creating a new way of life for millions of people around the globe.

Toward the end of his own life, Edison became more philosophical. He wrote a commentary entitled “Spiritualism,” analyzing facets of the paranormal movement that had once more seized the public interest. While skeptics like Harry Houdini worked to disprove frauds, Edison stated that he did believe that “our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter.” Echoing the laws of conservation of matter and energy, Edison held that “life is undestructable.” He described a constant amount of “life units” on the planet, which would be broken apart upon death and reshuffled as “swarms” that made up aspects of every plant, animal, thought, and memory in the world.

Although Edison’s perceived seat of human personality in the Broca’s Area of the brain proved to be questionable, the Spirit Phone did show that souls lived on. Those who had recently passed away were contacted easily enough for final farewells. Those who had died long ago, however, seemed to have already been shuffled into absence. Teams of curious historians brought the Spirit Phone to reportedly haunted castles and churches, competing to find the oldest entity still able to communicate. Firsthand accounts from events centuries before soon became readily available.

The Spirit Phone proved instrumental to police, who were able to solve numerous murders simply by dialing up the victim for a statement. Soon each major police station had its own Spirit Phone and trained operator to summon potential witnesses. Prosecutors had more difficulty gaining convictions in court as recordings were often questioned or thrown out altogether. Further court matters arose when spirits sought to amend their wills and yet were legally dead, thus not having property rights.

Religious figures denounced the Spirit Phone despite its success in having past relatives use passwords or citing memories no one else could know about. Counterarguments suggested that the phone was being tampered with by demonic forces. Others held the phone as an ever more elaborate hoax. Edison himself had been called an atheist for years, although he routinely described his beliefs in the Supreme Intelligence.

In 1933, the newly deceased Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet gave a limited address via Spirit Phone to discourage its use. He stated that the device prompted entities to remain tied to the mortal realm rather than passing on to become one with eternity, which would tip the delicate balance of life and death. Following the development of ghost-driven machines due to the need for manpower in World War II, many living people began to agree with him, although few would readily give up the Spirit Phone outright.


In reality, the invention is largely said to be myth, especially by the Edison Estate, who claim to have not seen any evidence of designs or prototypes in any of Edison’s work despite an interview in the October 1920 issue of Forbes magazine that he was working on such a device. Edison himself told the New York Times in 1926, “I really had nothing to tell him, but I hated to disappoint him, so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.” Through the years, many other electronic devices often nicknamed “ghost boxes” have claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit realm. Skeptics remain unconvinced while believers feel that the human spirit can indeed affect electromagnetic fields and thus speak from beyond the grave.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Guest Post: Benedict Arnold Rescues John Andre

On October 2, 1780, British Army officer Major John André was due to be hanged as a spy at Tappan, New York. In the morning, André was marched to the gallows. An executioner called Strickland had been hired by the patriots to secure the rope to the tree. But Benedict Arnold had gotten to Strickland and bribed him an enormous amount of money to have the rope slip. As the drummer ended, André was given his final words, and the thirty-year-old gave a short oration summed up, "As I suffer in the defence of my Country, I must consider this hour as the most glorious of my life - Remember that I die as becomes a British Officer, while the manner of my death must reflect disgrace on your Commander...I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode... I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man."

The trap was pulled, and André fell. Carefully filed by Strickland, the rope snapped. Before the guard could react, a group of loyalists let off a rifle barrage, gathering the crowd's attention. Arnold dove through the chaos and whisked away both Strickland and the stunned André, who would come out of the affair with a scar from the rope-burn around his throat. New York City would continue in an uproar for several days while André was hidden and finally sneaked out in the disguise of a milkmaid.

The rebel commander, George Washington, was reportedly so despondent at the news of Arnold's treachery that his officers had to wrestle a pistol away from him lest he kill himself. On the basis of romantic letters, he had foolishly believed that the plans to West Point had been passed to André by Arnold's loyalist wife Peggy Shippe who had been having an affair with the handsome young spy. Meanwhile, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York had done all that he could to save André, his favourite aide, but refused to surrender Arnold in exchange for André even though he personally despised Arnold. Fortunately this web of dis-loyalties was untangled by André himself. He put a bullet into the turncoat's head just a few miles from Tappan, executing him with the harsh words "Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!"

Author's Note: in reality Strickland had been confined at the camp in Tappan as a dangerous Tory during Andrés trial and was granted liberty for accepting the duty of hangman and returned to his home in the Ramapo Valley or Smith's Clove, and nothing further of him is known. 1) he actually said this words to his own servant who entered the room in tears on the morning of his execution.

This article was originally posted on Today in Alternate History.

Site Meter