The Afterlife of Leslie Stringfellow, by Stephen Chism, is a slim 2005 volume distributed by the University of Arkansas Press. It includes the complete text of Leslie's Letters to His Mother, a book produced by automatic writing (specifically, the planchette) and originally published in 1926 in a limited edition of 100 copies.
Leslie's mother, Alice Stringfellow, apparently wanted only to circulate the manuscript among family and friends. A copy ended up in the library of the University of Arkansas, where Chism, a librarian, found out about it. As coincidence - or fate - would have it, he had previously collected two photos of Leslie Stringfellow at yard sales without knowing anything about him.
His interest in this obscure book prompted Chism to do some original research into the Stringfellow family: wife Alice, husband Henry, son Leslie, and adopted daughter "Lessie." The Stringfellows were successful horticulturalists and well-educated, reasonably sophisticated people. Lessie was active in the suffragette movement and served as a newspaper editor, an unusual post for a woman in those days.
I became curious about this book after reading excerpts from it in The Afterlife Univeiled, by Stafford Betty, which I reviewed here. One question that concerned me was what this early channeled material might have to say about reincarnation, always a thorny subject in afterlife accounts. Having now read all of Leslie's Letters to His Mother, I can report that it says nothing at all on that topic. One passage does refer to being "reborn," but in context it seems to mean being "born again" or "saved" in the Christian sense during one's earthly life.
Though there is no mention of reincarnation, the channeled writings do show great respect for all religious traditions and cultures, and never suggest that Christianity is the only means to salvation. On the contrary, the idea is that everyone will progress spiritually in his or her good time, and that all traditions have value. This ecumenical attitude might be taken to mean that reincarnation, which after all is key to many religions, cannot be lightly dismissed. But this is only a supposition on my part; "Leslie" never broaches the subject.
A few passages seem to anticipate reports of near-death experiences, which did not become widely known until the 1975 publication of Raymond Moody's Life After Life. Here's one example:
When you die - as you call it - your spirit body is really born.
It begins to rise from your natural body at your breast, just over the heart, and it forms like a luminous vapor while you are "dying" until the last moment, when your heart ceases to beat. Then you are standing on your old body with your feet upon its breast, and you open your eyes and see a crowd of relatives and friends waiting to greet you and accompany you to some of their homes. They tell you you are in the Spirit World but you cannot believe it. [Pages 68, 69]
Another passage is interesting because it suggests that the light and joy that characterize most NDEs may not be the whole story:
Well, G- has come and when he opened his eyes and saw me he clasped me in his arms and cried for joy. His parents and all his relatives and friends were present to greet him. He was overjoyed for a time but after a while his past life, like a dark cloud overshadowed him and he was compelled to retire. He is in solitude and feels that his punishment is just, as he knows how many years he caused H- so much unhappiness and can talk of nothing else and beg her forgiveness. He can see nothing but his past. It is ever before him, so many years of a mis-spent life wasted and gone.
We do all we can to cheer him and only his immediate family see him. He cares to see no one at present. He cannot come to you yet for some time. I will see him every day. He is satisfied about H- and sends his love. He knows he will be all right after a while. [Pages 105, 106]
The above passage refers to a morphine addict who caused his loved ones much pain while on earth. The implication is that even people who have a lot of soul-searching to do will enjoy an initial period of unadulterated happiness upon arrival on "the other side." But if they'll be hanging around (and not returning, as NDErs do), they may have to set aside their happiness for a while and come to terms with their mistakes.
In the material selected for publication by Alice Stringfellow, evidential details are sparse. The only noteworthy example concerns an account of the deathbed experience of Henry Stringfellow's father. Leslie says:
Never grieve a moment for him, my dear child, for he is happy beyond expression. Yes, your father came and words cannot express his delight when he opened his eyes and saw me by his side, and crowds of friends and relatives. When he saw the beautiful world he was in the first thing he said was: "Bless me, Louisa, this is grand!"
In a footnote, Stephen Chism observes:
Alice Stringfellow believed this message to be one of the "proofs" that she and her husband received concerning the veracity of the letters. Beside this passage in the original book was the following note from Alex: "Mr Stringfellow was not with his father when he died and had not heard what his last words were. Upon receipt of the above writing he made inquiry of his sisters in Virginia as to his father's dying words and was told he said with his last breath: 'Bless me, Louisa, this is grand!' He was a prominent clergyman in the Episcopal Church of Richmond, Virginia. [Pages 91, 92]
This is a pretty striking instance if reported accurately, though of course it could be argued that Henry had heard of his father's last words at some point but had consciously forgotten them, or pretended to have forgotten.
There are perhaps other indications that the messages are genuine. In the introduction to her book, Alice Stringfellow reports that "if the weather was bad, if there was a rain or thunderstorm, or if there was any indisposition on our part the 'magnetism' as Leslie called it, was not strong enough and the writing - usually very large - was small and indistinct." It is commonly reported that stormy weather can interfere with mediumship; weather conditions were always a factor in Jane Roberts' channeling sessions, for instance.
Mrs. Stringfellow goes on to say:
We would write whole pages on newsprint paper before reading a line, then stop and read it. The "I's" were not dotted nor the "t's" crossed and no capitals or punctuation marks were used. Letters and words were all connected so sometimes we would not be able to make out a word or a sentence and at our request it would be written over.…
For more than ten years we kept this writing up without a break except when company or sickness or absence from home necessitated.
All of this matches what has been reported by other practitioners of automatic writing. As for evidential material, the introduction offers some examples not included in the body of the book:
… many messages we received were excellent "tests." For instance, once a message came stating the arrival in the spirit world of a relative of my husband. We were amazed at this news because when last we had heard this person had been alive and well. We were inclined to doubt the truth of the statement but next morning we received a telegram notifying us of the death.
The fact was as it had been given to us the night before by planchette. Again, my mother who was at first reluctant to believe the writings came from anything but our own imagination … was astonished to have written to her a message the contents of which were an equal surprise to my husband and myself.
It seems that being doubtful of the truth of the communications my mother had that morning written a note addressing it to Leslie and placed it on our boy's grave but telling no one of her act. In the note she had asked Leslie to prove to her the truth of "spirit writing" by answering her questions that night. The message which came that evening and [was] addressed to her was [the] answer to the questions she had asked and of which my husband and I knew nothing. She did not doubt Leslie after that.
On another occasion an unfamiliar presence seemed to take control of the planchette, producing illegible script. When Leslie showed up at the séance, he advised his parents to hold up the writing before a mirror. This revealed that the handwriting had been written in reverse. It read: "I was in New York many years ago and a mob tried to burn the court house and the soldiers that came from another town shot me when they fired." This appears to be a case of a so-called "drop-in communicator"; in fact, Alice Stringfellow writes that "the writer was evidently a spirit who had 'dropped in' and seeing us with an instrument for communication left us a brief greeting…"
Perhaps the most impressive evidential material presented by Mrs. Stringfellow involved another family.
… following the death of an old man named Walker who had lived near us, his son and daughter called and asked us to see if we could get a message from him. We received more of this same up-side-down, in-side-out writing. By taking the paper to a mirror we learned that Mr. Walker wanted his children to know he owned a valuable cemetery lot in Ohio. He said he wanted them to claim the lot, sell it and use the money. They had never known during their father's lifetime that he owned such a piece of property. Neither had we known it. They wrote to the town, had the property title investigated, found it belonged to them, sold it.
These stories, if accurately recounted, would seem to rule out conscious or unconscious deception on the part of one or both parents. Moreover, it seems hard to believe than any deception, whether witting or unwitting, could persist day in and day out over such a long time. The messages were first received in 1886 and continued until sometime in the early 1900s - a period covering roughly 15 years. For much of this time the séances were a nightly event. Alice reported that roughly 4,000 messages were received; if we can judge by the selected "letters," many were quite lengthy.
Overall, I found The Afterlife of Leslie Stringfellow an interesting and worthwhile read. It is not likely to convince any skeptics, and I myself found some of the channeled material rather hard to swallow, as when Leslie attends a new play by Shakespeare (sadly we are not told if by "Shakespeare" he means the Stratford man or someone else!), or when he visits an art gallery displaying a new masterpiece by Raphael or hears a concert featuring none other than Mozart on the piano. Some of this material reminded me of Borgia's Life in the World Unseen, another book that has always struck me as having a fictional quality.
On the other hand, I suppose if survival of death is a fact, it's not too implausible that great artists would still be creating masterworks in the next sphere of life.