Robert Gambier Bolton's Ghosts in Solid Form
This page is dedicated to the investigations in the field of materializations carried out in the early years of the '900 by the British zoologist Gambier Bolton. His goal as a researcher was to ascertain the best conditions for the production of phenomena, but always excluding any possibility of fraud by the medium or any accomplice. The method devised by Bolton, however complex, was effective: his main strength was that the séances were never performed in complete darkness, and that the only acceptable results were authentic materializations, partial or complete. Bolton experimented with different mediums in the course of hundreds of séances, in some of which also famous personalities took part, like Guglielmo Marconi. Bolton obtained extraordinary results, among which the complete materialization of some animals (including a seal). The materialized entities often conversed with the sitters, answering various questions about the dimension in which their existence took place or the ways in which they could materialize.
Robert Gambier Bolton
In 1914 was published the first edition of Ghosts in Solid Form, a booklet in which Gambier Bolton (1854-1928) explained his research methods and showed the results of seven years of experiments (with different mediums) on materialization phenomena. It is a remarkable text, not only because it shows phenomena observed by the author in first person, but especially because it defines with particular care all the precautions that researchers should take to rule out any possibility of fraud. The initial quote of the book: «A single grain of solid fact is worth ten tons of theory», is symptomatic of the pragmatic attitude of Bolton in the face of events for which he believed he had to guarantee, first of all, the objective reality of the phenomena investigated. Gambier Bolton was a naturalist photographer and a zoologist: a member of the Royal Geographical Society and Zoological Society, he also was chairman of the Psychological Society. He traveled in many countries, publishing several books that documented the life of animals (his main interest), as well as human uses and customs (his studies on tattoos are famous). The collections of his shots taken on the field are still sought after by collectors and present in the archives of important institutions such as the British Museum in London. His life was that of an active esquire of a wealthy family, of excellent education. In 1893-94 he accompanied the Duke of Newcastle in a scientific-cultural expedition that went around the world.
A pragmatic experimenter
As for the reasons that induced Bolton to study materializations, it should be remembered that the interest in spiritic phenomena was widespread in the English upper class of the time. The various cycles of séances he attended were to be located in the years around 1900, probably between 1896 and 1908. The aim he pursued was essentially pragmatic: he intended to write a kind of manual on the methods of investigation to which researchers in the specific field of materializations would have to stick to, so that the results obtained could be considered proof of fraud, deception or complicity. The materialized entities referred to by distinguished scientists like, among others, William Crookes or Alfred Russel Wallace, represented for Bolton the most extraordinary and the most mysterious among the phenomena to which a researcher of the wonders of nature could assist: it was in fact the possibility that, under certain conditions of light, temperature and environment, and through the mediation of particularly gifted persons of both sexes (which Bolton preferred to call sensitives rather than mediums), entities existing in a distinct and separate dimension from ours could manifest themselves on the physical plane in temporary bodies whose origin remained mysterious. Compared with this possibility – Bolton argued – even the most extraordinary natural phenomena, such as procreation and growth of living organisms, turn pale, if it is true that we can find ourselves in front of a perfectly formed human body, equipped with functioning vital organs, and temporarily inhabited by a thinking entity, able to see, hear, touch, feel and smell: a physical body, therefore, that can be touched, weighed, measured and photographed. In fact, these were the results of the investigations and experiments performed, and what was deemed impossible was then declared possible, however inexplicable.
Difficult to disagree with Bolton when he says that, once he has become aware of these phenomena, a researcher finds himself faced with a problem that deserves to be investigated in depth and with the utmost attention. He himself, being a man of action, decided to put aside all other tasks to devote all his time and energy – for years, if necessary – to a critical examination of what was claimed about materializations. His commitment was simply to confirm or refute the facts beyond any reasonable doubt, and nothing else. The result of seven years of passionate research – as Bolton referred to at the beginning of his book, anticipating his conclusions – was the full confirmation of the reality of materialization phenomena.
Bolton did not even tackle the problem of explanation of the phenomena, nor did he speculate on the nature of spirits: he limited himself to recognizing their actual existence in a sphere distinct from ours, stating that, in the light of the results of his investigations, there could be no more doubt about these facts. It is therefore important to examine the method adopted by him for his investigations, precisely because – if its validity is recognized – the results should not be doubted, unless we accuse Bolton himself of fraud, and of complicity or stupidity the various personalities who took part in the séances he organized in collaboration with other researchers, and testified about the reality of the phenomena. He himself stated several times that, using his method, it would be possible for any study group to achieve the same results, provided the researchers were not motivated by a prejudicial hostility towards materializations, and the medium had sufficient power.
Bolton attributed to the circle of sitters a remarkable importance in relation to the production of the energy needed so that materializations could occurr: only a part of this energy was supplied directly by the sensitive, whose main function was rather to be the accumulator and transformer of the energy supplied by the sitters, who together formed a sort of energy battery. In this respect, the presence in the circle of even a single prejudicial hostile person could be an obstacle in the energy flow inside the circle, just as a single defective element impairs the functioning of a battery of accumulators. Bolton therefore suggested to researchers a neutral but not prejudicial negative attitude on the possibility that the phenomena occur. The required measures against medium's fraud must be adopted without reserve, but the attitude of the researchers should be such as to favor, as far as possible, the occurrence of the phenomena, without wishing to exclude a priori the possibility that they may occur.
From an experimental point of view, Bolton was right: one of the errors regarding materialization phenomena in which some researchers, today as in the past, incur, is to consider the phenomena of mediumistic origin as any other physical phenomenon, that is as independent of the psychic orientation of the observer. These researchers thought they could proceed with laboratory methods, without paying due attention to the mediums, often considered almost as guinea pigs, and in any case as people against whom every form of constraint was allowed. But nothing justifies this attitude: indeed it is much more probable that mediumistic phenomena – including those of a physical nature – involve psychic energies of a different kind than those of which we are normally aware in the physical dimension. According to Bolton, materializations were completely different phenomena from phantasmatic apparitions of essentially visual nature: while these latter could not be touched, the materializations were temporary modelings of bodies of men, women, children and even animals, endowed with specific physical features (often referable to those belonged to people who had lived in this world), and consolidated through matter and energy made available partly by the sensitive and the sitters, and partly also by unknown collaborating entities. Since these phenomena have a physical and energetic component, it is understandable that they could be facilitated or hindered even by particular physical conditions, such as light, humidity, temperature or sound waves. This was one of the aspects to which Bolton paid particular attention, so as to be able to distinguish favorable from unfavorable conditions for phenomena to occur, and determine the limit conditions that completely inhibit materializations.
Control conditions for the production of phenomena
First of all, Bolton took into consideration the light's wavelength (that is the color), establishing in no uncertain terms that the séances would not take place in darkness, since all the events that occurred in the séance-room, as well as the positions and movements of the medium and the sitters had to be controlled and controllable at any moment. This condition was meant to rule out the accusation, already obsolete at that time, that all mediumistic phenomena occurred only in complete darkness. Bolton said that on two occasions he witnessed materializations occurring in daylight, but in any case in his experiments at least a gas lamp was always lit: according to his experiences, both solar and electric light, as well as gas light, could be used, provided they were properly filtered in order to let pass the vibrations of the lower part of the spectrum (towards the red) and not those of the upper part (blue-violet). In fact, he found that the latter – which he called actinic, as capable of causing photochemical reactions – had a disruptive effect on materializations. Regarding the temperature of the séance-room, Bolton found that those around 18°C were the most suitable for the phenomena to occur: temperatures too harsh in winter or high in summer tended to weaken or completely inhibit materializations.
It was also appropriate, even if not essential, to have adequate musical vibrations: after conducting a series of experiments with different instruments, Bolton came to the conclusion that the best vibrations were produced by playing harmonium (organ with bellows operated by pedals or an electric motor) or the concertina (a small accordion). In every age, different witnesses of mediumistic phenomenology have emphasized the importance of musical vibrations as generators of an energy that helps the manifestations: apparently music is not indispensable, but it has a notable amplifier effect. Bolton stated to have obtained, on a couple of occasions, good results even without music, but considered such events as exceptional: as a rule he felt it necessary that a person able to play the instrument took part in the séance, and on some occasions he himself played the keyboard.
Requirements requested to the medium and the sitters
Bolton experimented with various mediums. In his opinion it was essential that they were in good health and willing to submit to all the checks needed by the method he used. The reference to health conditions is not meaningless if we consider the risks to which the sensitive could be subjected: during some experiments – in which the medium was tied to a chair connected to an electrical alarm mechanism, which would activate if the medium attempted to stand up – weight loss up to 30 kilos of the medium were recorded during the most complete phase of materializations. Bolton also claimed to have been able to examine at the same time one of the mediums and an entity walking among the sitters with a perfectly formed temporary body: the medium's features were contracted, his limbs almost dry and his trunk twisted, so that he seemed in danger of life. For these reasons a doctor had to be always present at séances, who was in charge of ascertaining the medium's health conditions before the sitting and had to intervene in case of need during the same.
Even in Bolton's time, mediums capable of producing materializations were very rare, no more than four or five in all of England, and therefore one of the main problems for the experimenters was to ensure the collaboration of these sensitives. According to Bolton, the circle of sitters, having an helping function in the production of energies necessary for materializations, had to be formed from a minimum of twelve to a maximum of sixteen persons of both sexes, endowed with adequate scientific education, reliable, animated by sincere. spirit of research and in harmony with each other, all seriously determined to unmask and to denounce any attempt or suspicion of fraud. At the same time the sitters had to avoid any hostile or negative thought towards the medium, who with his/her resources and commitment was the indispensable element for the phenomena to occur.
Since Bolton believed that the sitters formed a kind of human battery, he preferred to alternate, when possible, a man with a woman, who sat in a semicircle around the sensitive on wooden chairs (those that seemed most appropriate were the so-called Viennese chairs, in which the seat surface is circular and perforated). The sitters too had to be in good health: a couple of hours before the séance it was advisable to take a bath and wear clean clothes, women in white and men in dark suits. They could also have a light meal, but without alcohol or meat. These precautions, which may seem excessive, testify to the seriousness of the experimenters' intentions and their awareness of the importance of the goal to be pursued: the confirmation of the reality of the phenomena of materialization. Therefore, not only all precautions to prevent any attempts at fraud had to be taken, but also those measures that could prove more favorable for the phenomena to occur.
Precautions against fraud
Bolton then listed the ideal conditions for an experiment that could be considered scientifically reliable, adding however that he could not always be able to respect all the required conditions during the hundreds of séances he organized with no less than six different mediums. Actually, only on one occasion was it possible to rent an entire empty house, in London, in which no one, neither the medium nor the sitters, had ever been before. According to Bolton, in fact, the ideal place for the séances (in order to take all precautions against fraud attempts) was represented by a house with empty rooms, uninhabited, and used exclusively for that purpose. Bolton openly stated that – given the importance of what was at stake – no one should be trusted, even among the sitters, so the most convenient thing to do was to get a house without furniture, which could first be adequately inspected from the investigators, and then well closed after putting seals on the interior doors and windows. It was important that the house had some empty rooms because the séance-room had to be chosen by lot or by vote among the sitters, who met in the hall at an agreed hour: the medium, accompanied by some assistant, could enter the house not earlier than half an hour before the beginning of the séance.
Once the séance-room was chosen, the person in charge of investigation entered it, accompanied by a skilled architect (possibly skeptical about the possibility of obtaining materializations without fraud), leaving anyone else out of the room. Both proceeded to a careful inspection of the room, consisting only of four bare walls, floor, ceiling, windows (if any), a door, a possible fireplace and one or more wall gas lamps. After a careful examination of the windows and their height from the ground, and considering the possibility that someone could open them from the outside, they were closed and sealed by seals made of strips of adhesive tape fixed with sealing wax inside the sashes. If there was a fireplace, on its opening was placed a wooden panel of appropriate size fixed with screws and sealed, so as to be sure that no one could enter the room through it. Finally, after a thorough examination of walls and floor, the investigator and the architect wrote a report stating that they thought the room was suitable for the séance and had not been subjected to any manipulation or transformation.
At this point the séance-director reopened the door, handed the report to a waiting assistant and arranged in the room about 17 chairs, a harmonium and its stool, the drapes of black fabric to be placed as screens on the windows, and any photographic equipment. The door was closed again, without anyone else being in the room but the director and the architect, all these objects were inspected. After writing a second report, stating that none of the objects inspected could hide something inside, both left the room, which was locked up. All the sitters, no one excluded, had to undergo a careful examination by a doctor before entering the room, making sure that they did not hide anything on their person or clothing that could be used for the production of fraudulent phenomena. Immediately after the visit, each of the sitters was allowed to enter the room, which was then locked up from the outside. The medium was in the meantime accompanied to the house and as soon as he entered he was carefully examined by the doctor: stripped of all his clothes, he had to wear only those expressly prepared by the researchers for the séance, in order to be sure that he did not hide secret pockets or anything else. The suit worn by the medium had to be strictly dark. In the end, the sensitive was also allowed into the room, where all the sitters stayed, but not the doctor. If he too wanted to attend the séance, one of the sitters was chosen by lot to go out of the room and submit the doctor to the same examination to which all the others had been subjected. Once back in, the door was permanently closed and locked with an internal latch.
The carrying out of séances
At least one gas lamp must always remain lit. The medium had to seat in the room corner farthest from the door, the windows and the fireplace, while the sitters sat in a semicircle around him so that he could not leave the circle if not bumping and shifting some of the sitters. Finally, the director and the architect put further seals with adhesive tape on the door, windows and fireplace, marking the sealing tape to make sure there could not be substitutions, and at last the séance began: one of the assistants went to the harmonium and began to play, while everyone else was holding hands and talking kindly to each other.
Bolton claimed that many well-known personalities, not only from every part of Britain, but from all over the world, took part in the séances arranged by him, and cited by name some members of the royal family, high-ranking officers of the Army and Navy, distinguished doctors, diplomatics, members of Parliament, journalists and writers (including Conan Doyle, William T. Stead and Florence Marryat), clergymen, lawyers and scientists (including, as we said, Guglielmo Marconi). Almost all of these well-known personalities did their best to remain incognito, and therefore often it was not possible to take all the measures that Bolton considered necessary for the correct application of his method. However several sessions were conducted as a test with the participation of carefully selected sitters, and in these cases all precautions against the possibility of fraud were strictly adopted.
Bolton believed that if materializations were obtained during a séance carried out after adopting the precautions provided by his method, such materializations must be considered genuine: in fact, the conditions imposed on the medium and the sitters, the modalities of inspection and protection of the room, and the maintenance of a sufficient light source during the séance, offered more than acceptable guarantees against fraud or any form of complicity. It does not appear, from Bolton's reports, that any of the medium used had ever opposed the imposed conditions. In this respect, therefore, Bolton's method should be considered an excellent one, since it provided for strict control conditions while keeping in mind the most favorable conditions for the phenomena to occur.
Of course, those who – by principle and by psychic orientation – consider in any case impossible the phenomena of materialization, and in general the most striking physical phenomena of mediumistic origin, will not agree. It is however excluded that a valid experimental method can be devised, that could satisfy these skeptics to the bitter end, because the value of a method consists in the fact that, once the experimental proceeding has been recognized and accepted a priori, the truthfulness of the results obtained is then admitted. But precisely the fact that these results are considered impossible a priori, implies that, when the phenomena occur, the skeptics want to invalidate the method a posteriori, claiming that it has not been able to avoid some form of fraud that must have been necessarily performed. They will therefore require (always in retrospect) that even stricter forms of control and inhibition are adopted, to the point of making the occurrence of the phenomena under observation completely impossible, not infrequently through forms of authentic constraint towards the hapless medium. At that point, of course, they will be satisfied (a fun example of this way of proceeding from a skeptical to the bitter end can be found in Marryat's book There Is No Death).
Materializations: bodies and clothes
Of the sensitives with whom Bolton experimented, only one did not go into a trance, but remained in perfectly normal conditions during all the séance, observing how materialized entities were forming close to him and conversing with them. He was a man of about 50 who took his place inside the circle, while two of the sitters held his hands. The séances with this medium took place at the London office of the Psychological Society. Usually, at the beginning of the séances, the sitters could feel a fresh breeze around their hands, which in a couple of minutes turned into a really cold wind. They could then observe that the medium quickly fell into a deep trance (with the exception of the one mentioned above). After a while some of the sitters, endowed with more acute perceptive faculties, declared that they could see a sort of white mist, like a form of vapor, that seemed to come from the medium's left side, if male, or from the pelvic area, if female. In his book, Bolton calls this fluid teleplasm, a term that was later changed by Richet into ectoplasm, still in use today. According to the more sensitive sitters, the fluid began to circulate through the chain formed by the sitters, and in this way returned to the medium, increasing in volume and intensity. This first stage was referred to as the vapour stage.
The fluid then began to condense into a white, pasty and soft substance – always coming from the medium's body – that all the sitters could see. Bolton was also allowed to touch it: it was odorless and to the touch it appeared cold, moist and somewhat slimy, with a consistency similar to that of kneaded flour. The ectoplasmic substance lay on the ground, next to the sensitive, until the entities used it to materialize. This second phase was called solid, but shapeless stage. When an entity began to materialize, the informal mass increased in volume and began to pulsate and move up and down, swaying from one side to the other as it grew in height, animated by a vivifying force that came with all evidence from within. Then the entity continued its work by modeling the mass in a form resembling a human body, starting from the head, to which the upper part of the torso followed. At this point it was possible to recognize and hear the heartbeat of the entity, which was regular, while that of the medium during this phase was considerably below the norm. Finally the legs and feet formed, and at this point the materialized entity was able to move away from the medium, walking among the sitters. This was the third and last stage of the phenomenon.
Although on some occasions the entities wore clothes identical to those they used when alive – this happened especially in case of military or naval uniforms – more often they showed themselves draped in a white fabric that seemed very soft and silky to the touch. Some sitters also perceived the presence of a fiber of matter that, like an umbilical cord, linked the materialized entity with the medium's body. This fiber could stretch (but not beyond a certain limit, from 4 to 5 meters) without damaging the medium or the entity, even if in particularly favorable conditions some entities were able to move up to more than 10 meters from the medium. The flesh of materialized bodies appeared to the touch as natural, that is, warm and solid. The bodies themselves were well shaped and the feminine ones often had pleasant forms: however, almost always their size seemed to be about a third less than when they were alive, except for the height, which is why the entities appeared slimmer and thinner compared to living people. Entities of both sexes were seen, showing the natural signs of an advanced age, but there were also entities in their prime, or children. During a séance, two newborns simultaneously materialized among the sitters, one of whom presented a grotesque deformity on his face, corresponding to that of a child who was born prematurely to a lady present at the sitting.
The changing appearance of entities
It was explained to the sitters that the appearance taken by the entities was made as similar as possible to what they had on Earth shortly before death, in order to help their identification by relatives or friends present at the séances. Therefore also physical defects were kept: who had lost a leg during his life appeared without leg, who had been disfigured by smallpox kept the marks, and so on. But as soon as the materialized entities were recognized, their appearance of could change instantly: all defects disappeared, and both the elderly and the children could turn into young people in full force, with that aspect that they stated to have and to feel in the dimension in which they were now. Temporarily assuming materialized bodies, the entities – in addition to sex – also acquired physical perception, becoming sensitive to pain, cold or excessive heat. They also felt uncomfortable during thunderstorms, when the atmosphere was more saturated with electricity, while they were gay and happy if the night was serene and starry, with a pleasant temperature.
Not only could the entities preserve the characteristic traits of the race to which they belonged during their earthly life, including skin color, but they also continued to use their own language, so that during one séance up to six foreign languages were used (French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Tamil), each known by some of the sitters, even if the medium spoke nothing but English. During another sitting, where Bolton was the only European present, eight Indians of both sexes from Bombay conversed for more than two hours in Hindi with some materialized entities. At a certain point between two of the entities and one of the sitter a lively and excited dispute occurred about the way to treat the bodies of the deceased: the entities insisted on cremation, in contrast with the practice, then diffused (and defended by the Hindu), of leaving the corpses to feed the vultures. Even in this circumstance, the sensitive knew nothing but English, and a few words of French.
Results of some tests
Bolton and his assistants carried out several experiments to confirm the reality of materializations and to exclude any possibility of collective hallucination by the sitters. Once the medium, a 46-year-old man almost blind, was taken by train to a spot unknown to him, and here he was led into a camper made available by a friend of Bolton and inspected and locked by him before the medium arrived. The goal was to conduct a séance in extremely unfavorable conditions, and a failure was most probable result. Upon arriving, during the night, the medium was introduced into the vehicle that began to roam the countryside, with its doors well locked. There was not a chair in the camper, so the medium was seated on a boardon top of the iron cooking-range which was fixed in the kitchenportion of the caravan, while Bolton and his friend sat upon the two couches which were used as beds in the living-portion.
Without any other arrangement, after about ten minutes appeared in front of them the figure of a man so tall as to have to bend his head as he passed through the opening, more than six foot high, which separated the two sections of the caravan. The entity said: «I am Colonel X, who was killed, as you say, at the battle of... in Egypt. For many years during my earth-life I was deeply interested in materialisations, and spent the last night of my life in England experimenting with this very sensitive; and it is a great pleasure to me to be able to return to you – strangers though you both are to me – through him. To prove to you that I am not the sensitive masquerading before you, will you please come here and stand close to me, and so settle the matter for yourself?». Bolton at once rose and stood beside him, almost touching him. So he then discovered that not only were his features and his colouring totally different to those of the medium, but that the entity towered above him, standing, as nearly as he could judge, six foot three inches, and was certainly four inches taller than either the sensitive or himself. Bolton and his friend could both hear the unfortunate sensitive moving uneasily on his hard seat on the kitchenrange, sighing and moaning as if in pain. The entity remained with them for about three minutes, and his place was then taken by a slightly built young man, standing about five feet nine inches, claiming to be a recently deceased member of the royal family. He talked with them in a soft and pleasing voice, finally whispering a private message to Bolton's friend, asking him to deliver it to his mother, Queen Victoria.
Another experiment took place in the house of a friend of Bolton. To ensure strict control, a gentleman, Mr. X (his true name is not mentioned in the book), famous for having unmasked the tricks of a famous conjurer during two trials, was invited to attend the seéance. Mr. X was instructed to examine the medium and tie her to the chair with ropes that bound her to some strong iron rings fixed to the wooden planks of the parquet, in the way he considered most suitable to guarantee the impossibility for the woman to untie the bonds. All knots were then sealed by Mr. X with sealing wax, on which the seal of the landlord was imprinted. After more than a quarter of an hour of hard work, when asked if he was satisfied with how he had secured the medium to the chair, Mr. X replied that if phenomena of materialization would occur in those conditions, he would immediately recognize their genuineness.
The medium so tied was Mrs. Florence Corner, better known as Florence Cook, her maiden name when she had taken part in William Crokes experiments in her youth. At the time of this séance (about 1903) she was almost 48 years old and would have died shortly thereafter, in 1904. Mrs. Corner was terrified of darkness, and the only thing she did not accept was to keep séances in complete darkness. For this reason a gas lamp had been left lit next to her chair, and when Mr. X, after a final check of the room, approached the mediumistic cabinet to pull the curtain in order to protect the medium from the lamp's direct rays, a strong arm and a dark colored hand suddenly appeared, which began to beat on his shoulder, while a husky and strong male voice asked him: «Are you really satisfied?». Bolton said to have witnessed some strange happenings in connection with his investigation of occult matters, but to his dying day he would never forget the look of blank astonishment on Mr. X's face at that moment. Quickly recovering himself, however, Mr. X at once examined the sensitive – a little woman, far below the average height, having small hands and feet – and declared that every seal and every knot was unbroken, and just as he had left them not sixty seconds before.
Amongst other entities who materialised that evening was a young girl of about eighteen years of age, who stated that when she left her earth-body she had been a dancer at a café in Algiers. She came from the spot where the medium was seated, laughing heartily, stating that the hand and arm belonged to an old English sailor, whom she spoke of as the Captain. She said, further, that he had been standing with her watching the tying-up process from their sphere, and laughing at Mr. X's vain attempt to prevent the production of the phenomena. The Captain had very much wished to materialise fully, so as to surprise Mr. X as he stepped back from the sensitive; but, finding that he could only get sufficient power to produce a hand and arm, he was in a bad temper. And this was evidently the case, for during the ten minutes that the girl remained talking to the sitters they could now and then hear the gruff voice of the Captain rolling out language which was described as forcible and free. The experiment lasted for nearly an hour, and at its conclusion Mr. X examined the medium, and once again reported that everyseal and knot were just as he had left them at the beginning of the experiment. The following page deals with other experiments carried out by Bolton.