As long-time readers of this blog know, I've been very skeptical of the English medium David Thompson, who has participated in a series of séances with a group called the Circle of the Silver Cord in Sydney, Australia. It is claimed that Thompson, while securely bound and gagged in a dark room, can materialize the ectoplasmic forms of departed persons who then speak to the sitters, sometimes sing or play musical instruments, and occasionally shake hands or offer physical tokens (a handwritten note in one case, a commemorative coin in another).
Many such claims have been made in the history of mediumship, and outlandish as they sound, some of them appear to have validity. But the specific circumstances of Thompson's séances made me extremely skeptical. My working hypothesis was that Thompson was able to free himself from his restraints, take off his gag, and put on a performance in the dark; while the lights were still out, he would slip back into his restraints after reapplying the gag. Certainly this method of deception has been used by other alleged physical mediums and materialization mediums in the past.
I even went to the trouble of contacting some professional escape artists through an online forum and asking if it would be possible to slip out of, and then back into, the kind of restraints used to secure Thompson to his chair. Several of the escape artists assured me that it was possible and even easy, and one of them promised to make a video that would demonstrate how it was done.
Recently, however, I've started to think I was wrong about David Thompson. That is not to say there are no problems with his mediumship. I do think there are problems. There are many unanswered questions and many doubtful phenomena. But I am no longer committed to my theory that Thompson is escaping from his bonds to put on a fraudulent performance.
There are two main reasons for my change of mind. First, it has been many months since the escape artist in question promised to produce his video, and so far no video has appeared. Another participant in the same forum brought up this fact a couple of months ago, and was met with a storm of abuse from the assembled escape artists, who were eager to protect one of their own. Their defensiveness did not inspire confidence. There may be perfectly valid reasons why the video was never produced -- reportedly the escape artist in question has gone off to a Third World country to do charity work -- but the fact remains that there is no video and hence no proof that slipping in and out of these bonds is as easy as I'd been told.
I'm not saying it's impossible to slip free of the flexible handcuffs that secure Thompson; probably no method of restraint is completely escape-proof; but I'm no longer inclined to take the escape artists' word for it when they assert, without any supporting evidence, that it can be easily done. After all, there is a long history of magicians, mentalists, and escape artists making extravagant claims to be able to duplicate spiritualistic phenomena -- claims they frequently have been unable to back up.
Second, I've been in touch with someone who attended a David Thompson séance in the United States not long ago. This person would prefer not to be named because he doesn't want to be drawn into the sometimes rough-and-tumble online controversy. But his report of what happened is quite credible, presented in a no-nonsense tone with a lot of detail. Here are some of the facts that stood out when I read his description.
The room in which the séance took place was one that Thompson had never entered before. Since Thompson hails from the UK and has recently been living in Australia, it's not surprising that he would be unfamiliar with a building in the USA. The room was small and, when all the sitters were assembled, quite crowded. Between 22 and 24 people sat for the séance in closely arranged chairs that left little or no room for maneuvering. The sitters arranged large plywood boards over the carpeted floor so that any footsteps would be audible. Thompson was secured to a chair he had not supplied -- which, again, is not surprising, since he would hardly have transported a chair from overseas to the United States. The circle members were seated so closely together, in such cramped quarters, that had any of them left the circle, the person's defection would surely have been detected. The only door to the room was locked, and the windows were boarded shut. Thompson himself was placed in a makeshift "cabinet" -- essentially he was behind a curtain. Everyone was searched with the use of a metal detector when entering the room. Their pockets and shoes were examined, and many of their belongings (jewelry etc.) were removed.
Thompson asked for £40 from each sitter to cover his expenses (about $75). This is not a trivial amount; considering there were between 22 and 24 sitters, total earnings from the event would have been at least $1650. Still, the amount is less than the $280 per sitter that other sources have reported as Thompson's fee. And given the travel costs, it seems unlikely that Thompson made any net profit.
Much of what proceeded to happen was similar to reports already given, but there were a few interesting details supplied by my correspondent. For one thing, there were the trumpet phenomena. The 'trumpet" is of course a conical, megaphone-like device used to amplify spirit voices. In this case the trumpet, which had been treated with luminous paint or tape so as to be seen in the dark, whizzed around the room at high speed -- not an unusual event at a séance, and an effect that can be faked by placing the trumpet at the end of a pole.
What is more significant is that the trumpet would speed up to a sitter's face and stop instantly when just touching the tip of the person's nose -- then repeat this action as many as four times in succession. My correspondent did not think that any human agent, working in pitch darkness, could manipulate the trumpet so precisely. It's one thing to move the trumpet helter-skelter, but another to guide it with such rapidity and precision to a particular target in the dark and do so over and over again without error. My correspondent did not hear any footsteps on the plywood planks that would have suggested a human operator.
An even more dramatic effect occurred at the very end of the séance, when a loud crash was heard in the center of the room, between the two sets of folding chairs. When the lights came on, Thompson was found, secured and gagged, in his chair at that very spot. It appeared as if the chair, with Thompson in it, had been moved out from behind the curtain (which was undisturbed) and dropped heavily onto the floor. Again, no footsteps were heard on the plywood planks. If Thompson, free of his restraints, had lugged the chair into the center of the room, it seems almost certain his footsteps would have been audible, and he very likely would have brushed against some of the sitters in the confined space. The same is true if we imagine that an accomplice or accomplices had carried the chair and dropped it.
I've received other information from the same correspondent, not relating specifically to this séance, but still of considerable interest. For one thing, the respected paranormal writer Guy Playfair sat in a Thompson séance in which he allegedly encountered the materialized form of psychical researcher Montague Keen. Asking for proof of Keen's identity, Playfair was given an address. This address, which related to an investigation in which Playfair had participated some years earlier, was not publicly known, but would have been known to Keen.
When questions arose about the reality of Thompson's purported spirit control, a certain William C. Cadwell, Playfair did some research in Mormon family history records and apparently found there was a William C. Cadwell who died within one year of the date of death given by Thompson's "William." There seems to be some question as to whether the person Playfair uncovered was named Cadwell or Caldwell. (As I am told Guy Playfair sometimes reads this blog, perhaps he can be prevailed upon to clear this up.)* Moreover, some people say it couldn't be Thompson's "William" because the spirit control claimed to have come from London and the person listed in the Mormon records lived in a different part of England. According to my correspondent, however, the Mormon records did not list Cadwell/Caldwell's place of origin. In any event, there does appear to be at least some support for the existence of a William C. Cadwell/Caldwell in the appropriate timeframe.
[*Update, September 15: In the comments thread (below), Guy Lyon Playfair confirms that the name he found in the Mormon records was W. C. Cadwell. This person was born in 1843 in London. Guy did not note the year of death but says he will check it when he can. Another commenter, Lis, says that according to other records, this individual was actually born on August 4, 1842, but not christened until August 2, 1843. She writes, "Sadly, this William Charles Cadwell died at the age of 23 in the December Quarter of 1865.... It is obvious that this William Charles Cadwell is not the 'etherean' who claims to be William Charles Cadwell born 1830 died 1897."]
I'm also told that, when he lived in England, Thompson participated in a home circle which met once a month for more than five years, without publicity or any monetary compensation. Although the vagaries of human motivation can be hard to fathom, it does seem unlikely that someone who is out to make money as a fraud would spend more than five years in regular séances for no pay and no PR. As my correspondent points out, there are quite a few home circles in the UK, and few of them get any publicity, since the members prefer to keep a low profile.
So what to make of David Thompson? I continue to think there are serious problems raised by his mediumship. Various dead celebrities have allegedly appeared in the séance room, often sounding nothing like their earthly selves. Dubious medical diagnoses and advice have been offered. Audio files of the séances have been put online and then removed without explanation. Some of Thompson's defenders can be belligerent and unreasonable. (A thorough rundown of objections to Thompson's mediumship is found here.)
That said, it does appear that something paranormal is going on. I no longer think the hypothesis of outright fraud is plausible. It may be that Thompson is channeling low-level spirit entities who pretend to be something they're not. Or possibly he is somehow manifesting his own unconscious thought forms. Or perhaps there is some other explanation.
I don't know.