Recently we've been discussing the possibility that the heyday of Spiritualism constituted a "mania," in which normally sober observers found their judgment impaired by what Alan Greenspan would call "irrational enthusiasm." While the very best research from that period was well-designed and difficult to refute, there are undeniably problems with other claims, reports, and observations. What follows is a grab-bag of items in no particular order - things I've noticed in my reading over the years. I also offer a brief counterpoint whenever it seems appropriate.
Spirit communicators offered conflicting statements on important subjects, most notably reincarnation. In the early years, there was little mention of reincarnation. After Madame Blavatsky popularized the idea of reincarnation through her Theosophy movement, mediums started talking about it a lot more. It's hard to resist the conclusion that the content of the mediums' messages, at least in this case, was influenced by what the sitters expected to hear.
Counterpoint: The greater part of the commuications was largely consistent, and this general consistency is found in more modern communications and in other afterlife evidence, such as near-death experiences and deathbed visions. Robert Crookall documented these consistencies in several books in the 1960s.
Spirit communicators made failed predictions, which were generally overly optimistic in nature. For instance, they predicted an era of universal peace and harmony following the First World War. Even during the buildup to the WWII they insisted there would not be another global conflict. They also predicted that the truth of Spiritualism would be universally acknowledged within 100 years and would be part of mainstream science.
Some of the people who analyzed the so-called "cross correspondences" became obsessed with the strange notion that a one of their number was destined to bear a son who would become a new messiah. This child was being "designed" by spirit entities to be a superior being, one who would lead the human race to a new era of peace. Though a child was born, he did not fulfill these expectations, though he did grow up to be a notably spiritual man who eventually became a Benedictine monk. The story is told here.
The spirit "controls" (i.e., spirit guides) exhibited many oddities, could not convincingly confirm their earthly existence, and often exhibited cartoonish or stereotyped behavior. More discussion here.
Dogmatism and credulity.
Some investigators seemed to become overly enthusiastic about their findings and exhibited dogmatism and credulity. James Hyslop, an early convert to belief in spirit communication and life after death, insisted that the case was proved beyond any doubt–clearly an overstatement. Arthur Conan Doyle was taken in by a number of fake mediums, notably the Davenport Brothers; he was fooled by obviously fake photographs taken by children in the "Cottingley fairies" case; and in one notable instance he insisted that Harry Houdini, the escape artist and famed debunker, must be a medium himself because only by dematerializing could he perform his escapes!
Some of the claims made by paranormal investigators of the time clash with our modern understanding of science. For instance, in his book Thirty Years Among the Dead (PDF), psychiatrist Carl Wickland tells how his wife's mediumship helped cure mentally ill patients by freeing them from obsessing spirits. But with everything we now know about the chemical basis for much of mental illness, how plausible is the spirit-obsession hypothesis?
It was not unusual for alleged spirit communicators themselves to provide incorrect scientific statements. Many of these involved "the ether"–the invisible substance then widely believed to pervade the universe and to serve as a transmission medium for electromagnetic waves. Today the ether has been generally discredited, although there are occasional attempts to bring it back in a modified form. Other inaccurate scientific statements are found in The Spirits' Book, a collection of spirit communications compiled by Allan Kardec. (Example, passage 46: "Do not the tissues of the human body and of animals contain the germs of a multitude of parasites, that only await for their development the occurrence of the putrid fermentation necessary to their life?" This appears to be an endorsement of spontaneous generation, a popular view of the time, but discredited today.) It's hard to trust "the spirits" if they don't know basic scientific facts.
Counterpoint: Science writer Norman Friedman believes that channeled information attributed to Seth, and found in the works of Jane Roberts, sheds valuable light on quantum mechanics.
Other channeled information included what appears to be clearly incorrect historical data. Edgar Cayce, for instance, made claims about the origins of the Bible and the circumstances and time periods in which it was written that would not be endorsed by any accredited biblical scholars today. His statements seem to be in line with what would be expected from someone with a layman's knowledge of the subject.
Counterpoint: Stephan A. Schwartz's work with psychics at archaeological digs has resulted in some impressive finds. Schwartz's work is meticulously recounted in his books, notably The Alexandria Project.
Some investigators accepted spirit photographs whose fakery is embarrassingly obvious today. Others were not deterred by photos taken during séances that showed clear signs of fraud. A notable instance was the case of Eva C., who supposedly had the ability to manifest spirit faces out of ectoplasm. Photographs make it clear that the spirit faces were drawings clipped from the newspaper. In one photo it is even possible to see part of the newspaper's masthead showing through the paper. Nevertheless, the investigator researching Eva C. refused to believe the spirit faces had been faked, because he did not think there was any flaw in his security protocols. Even today, there are people who defend the mediumship of Helen Duncan, despite the embarrassingly phony “spirit guide” that shows up in photos taken while she was supposedly entranced.
Helen Duncan and her materialized "spirit guide."
A large number of physical and materialization mediums were exposed as frauds. A common tactic was to tackle the materialized “spirit” in the middle of the séance and hold on to it until the lights came up, at which point the struggling figure would be revealed as the medium in disguise. Even mediums who were caught in such deceptions retained some followers. Florence Cook was caught at least once, and arguably twice*, by such a method, yet her principal investigator, William Crookes, never admitted she was anything less than genuine.
(*In the one debatable instance, the “spirit” wriggled free before the lights could be turned on; accounts differ as to whether Florence, when found in her cabinet, was securely tied to her chair as she should have been, or was only loosely tied, the knots obviously having been undone.)
Counterpoint: Some physical mediums held up under scrutiny. Despite a known penchant for cheating when she could get away with it, Eusapia Palladino impressed highly experienced and skeptical investigators at the Naples sittings in 1908. D.D. Home was never caught in fraud, and performed in lighted rooms under close observation.
Frequent messages from the spirit communicators indicated that Jesus Christ is effectively the leading light in the spirit world, a message that seems perhaps a bit too nicely calculated to appeal to the Judeo-Christian sensibilities of sitters and researchers.
Messages about the nature of the afterlife and the ultimate purpose of existence seemed to borrow liberally from Emanuel Swedenborg's writings, with one significant alteration. In Swedenborg's system, there is no continuing evolution of the soul after death; the soul migrates to whatever sphere is most suitable and stays there for eternity. Most of the Spiritualist mediums, on the other hand, stated that souls inhabit a given sphere only temporarily and are constantly moving onward in accordance with a universal law of spiritual progress. This idea of spiritual evolution seems to have been inspired by the fashionableness of Darwinian evolution, giving a more modern and progressive spin to Swedenborg's ideas. But if the descriptions were influenced by cultural and social trends, do they reflect a higher reality or only the assumptions of the mediums and sitters?
Some researchers continued to accept the validity of so-called slate writing–messages written in chalk on slate tablets in the pitch dark séance room–even after slate writing had been exposed as fraudulent many times. Admittedly these researchers took elaborate pains to guard against fraud. Nevertheless, the long history of fakery in slate writing and the need to place the slate out of sight during part of the performance should be enough to cast doubt on these claims.
Spiritualism was characterized, in part, by fantastic stories that seem to have been taken seriously by at least some of its adherents. For instance, there was the often-told story of the sudden “apport" of Mrs. Guppy, a 300-pound medium who allegedly appeared out of nowhere during another medium's séance. The claim was that Mrs. Guppy had been dematerialized from her home many miles away and rematerialized on the séance table. Stories like this did not help the credibility of the Spiritualist movement with the general public, and led many to see Spiritualists as gullible and silly. The acceptance of such unlikely claims by some of Spiritualism's enthusiasts may give credence to the idea that a mania was at work - though, again, there is a core of serious research that resists easy debunking.