White Crow Books has published a new edition of Neville Whymant's 1931 book Psychic Adventures in New York, edited by Michael Tymn (also available in a Kindle edition). The book is very short – I think I read it in about 40 minutes – but contains some highly interesting information about Whymant’s sittings with controversial medium George Valiantine in the 1920s.
As Michael Tymn points out,
When you access information about Valiantine in books or on the Internet today, you read mostly about his failures and alleged cheating and hardly anything about his successes. Thus, the tendency is to completely dismiss him as a charlatan.
And yet Whymant’s story is compelling, and Whymant himself is a highly credible figure, both because of his intellectual accomplishments and because he resolutely refused to reach any final conclusions about the meaning of the phenomena he had observed. Tymn writes,
Whymant was a professor of linguistics at both Oxford and London universities and was in the US in 1926 while studying the languages of the American Indian. He reportedly could speak 30 languages, including several dialects of Chinese.
It is Whymant’s facility with languages that came into play in the Valiantine séances. Valiantine was a direct voice medium, meaning that the voices heard in the séance room purportedly did not come from Valiantine’s vocal cords but instead from some sort of vaguely understood ectoplasmic voice box constructed by the spirits in the darkness. I know this sounds ridiculously far-fetched, and anyone would be forgiven for disbelieving it. Yet Whymant's careful testimony deserves consideration. Whymant tells us:
Altogether fourteen foreign languages were used in the course of the twelve sittings I attended. They included Chinese, Hindi, Persian, Basque, Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, Yiddish (spoken with great fluency when a Yiddish and Hebrew speaking Jew was a member of the circle), German, and modern Greek.… Even if the medium had been a first-class linguist, it was manifestly impossible for him to be speaking in Chinese and American English at one and the same time, and yet all the sitters had heard Valiantine carrying on a conversation with his neighbor while other voices (two and three at one time) were speaking foreign languages fluently. I am assured, too, that it is impossible for anyone to “throw his voice,” this being merely an illusion of the ventriloquist. Yet in these sittings voices seemed to come from the far corners of the room, out of the very wall against which the back of one’s chair was pressed, from the ceiling, and from the floor.
He points out that the room was extremely cramped, and that the sitters’ chairs typically backed up against the walls, while their legs nearly touched when outstretched. In short, even though the room was dark, there was no way anyone could have moved around without being immediately detected.
At one point a voice allegedly belonging to Whymant’s late father-in-law was heard. Whymant observes that, other than himself and his wife, no one in the room knew that his wife was English by birth; for complicated reasons, people generally assumed she was an American who had acquired a slight English accent by virtue of living in that country as an adult. The disembodied voice, however, captured his wife’s native dialect accurately. Let Whymant tell the story:
In the course of the evening a voice made itself heard, speaking my wife’s Christian name. It was very faint at first, like most of the “intimate” voices; in fact, it was little more than an inarticulate whisper. In the course of a few moments, however, it became stronger, until finally it was loud enough for the other sitters in the immediate neighborhood to hear what was being said. It claimed to be the voice of my wife’s father. Judge Connor sat on the left of my wife, and he seemed particularly interested in this voice. When the sitting was over he told my wife that he flattered himself that he recognized the characteristics of all the local dialects in the United States – it was a hobby of his and he had traveled extensively – but he could not place this one. My wife said she was not surprised he could not place it as an American dialect – she herself had only heard it in the West Country of England. The voice certainly had the West Country tone and slight drawl, reminiscent of the speech of my wife’s family in Somerset.
While the accurate Somerset dialect and the plethora of voices speaking a bewildering variety of foreign languages are certainly interesting, Whymant's most memorable moments involved his interaction with the alleged spirit of none other than Confucius himself. The disembodied voice at first spoke an ancient dialect of Chinese, one so rare that even Whymant, with all his expertise, was somewhat unfamiliar with it. To accommodate him, the voice switched to a somewhat more modern but still rarely heard dialect. In this manner the voice recited an obscure Confucian poem in its entirety and corrected errors in extant copies of another poem. As Whymant tells it:
So now, I thought, was my opportunity to set another test. A communication might proceed from a medium or a spirit, said the scoffers, but never was anything said which could not be better said by an intelligent man on earth. Certainly individual scraps of foreign languages had been heard in various sittings before [i.e., in sittings with mediums other than Valiantine], but no definite conversation had taken place. Well, here was a conversation which had by this time been going on for some ten minutes, and certainly what I had got out of it had been sufficient to make me think seriously as to what was happening.
I therefore addressed a question to the “voice”: “Shall I ask of one passage in the Master’s own writing? In Lun Yu, Hsia Pien, there is a passage which is wrongly written. Should it not read thus: …?” But before I could get out even the details of the passage in question, the “voice” took up my sentence and carried it through to the end. “You were going to ask me about the two characters which end the last two phrases: you are quite right. The copyists were in error. The character which is se should be i, and the character which is written yen is an error for fou.”
In reviewing his notes after the first sitting, Whymant discovered
that an error had been made – either I had misheard and had written down one wrong character or the voice had erred in its recital of the poem [a different poem from the one mentioned above]. Before I had time to comment on this at the second sitting the voice said:
“Speaking the other day, this clumsy witless one stepped into error. Too frequently, alas! has he done this, and the explanation he gave was a faulty one. Listen now to the true reading of the passage about which the illustrious scholar inquired.”
Then followed the true reading with the faulty character corrected! This certainly impressed me as out of the ordinary.
Out of the ordinary, indeed.
Despite all this, Valiantine is mostly dismissed by students of the paranormal today. Stephen E. Braude, in his 2003 book Immortal Remains, suggests that the voices may have been too indistinct to be heard clearly and that Whymant and the other sitters merely filled in the gaps with their imagination. Michael Tymn writes that this theory
seems to be based on a sitting Valiantine had with the SPR in 1927. That sitting produced ‘whispers,’ some of which sounded like Chinese to the researchers but were very unclear. When the SPR asked Whymant to listen to the gramophone recording of the voices, he couldn’t make them out, either.
One SPR researcher, in her report, pointed out that there are many ‘Chinamen’ living in America and Valiantine probably learned a little Chinese from them, enough to make Whymant think he was hearing think that he was hearing Chinese and he subconsciously filled in the blanks. It suggests that Whymant was a complete idiot. It also suggests that Valiantine learned enough of 13 other languages, including Sanskrit, to further dupe Whymant and also that he memorized the poems of ‘Confucius,’ or Whymant just imagined he heard the voice recite a lengthy poem and also imagined that ‘Confucius’ explained the mistakes in one of them.
Whymant gives no indication in his book of not being able to understand the voices, other than having difficulty understanding the ancient Chinese dialect. He stated that some of the voices were so strong that he could feel the vibrations off the floor.…
What many people don’t understand is that a sympathetic link and harmony are usually necessary for good communication to take place. SPR researchers were sometimes intent on debunking a person and the hostility they displayed toward Valiantine resulted in poor phenomena.
Tymn goes on to describe internal conflicts within the SPR that could have accounted for this hostility. It might be added that the SPR, at that time, exhibited a generalized antipathy toward any sort of physical mediumship, and direct voice mediumship can be characterized as such.
It has to be said that, in a later sitting, Valiantine was caught in what certainly appears to be a blatant act of fraud. Through him, the “spirits” had claimed they would produce an imprint of the deceased Arthur Conan Doyle’s thumb, which could be compared with Doyle’s actual fingerprint. The plaster cast, however, turned out to be an imprint of Valiantine’s big toe! This embarrassing and ludicrous outcome is typically the first and last thing that anyone hears about Valiantine, and it is sufficient to discredit him in many people’s minds.
But I don’t know. There is a “tricksterish” element to a lot of paranormal phenomena, even in cases that, by all appearances, should be classified as legitimate. Michael Tymn suggests sabotage by low-level spirits. Another possibility is some kind of subconscious self-sabotage, or some built-in cosmic mechanism that prevents us from getting absolute, unchallengeable proof of an afterlife.
Is this just reaching? Maybe – but if we believe that Valiantine was nothing but a fraud, we are still left with Whymant's testimony; and if the events he witnessed were correctly reported, any “normal” explanation would seem to be ruled out.