By Robin M. Strom-Mackey
The simplest form of automatic writing uses a paper and pencil or pen, or even a typewriter. The writer attempts to enter a trance like state, and writes down unconsciously whatever “comes through.” Whether a device for spirit communication or a means to tap one’s subconscious mind remains the debate. One author even suggested that perhaps what was tapped was the writer’s alter-ego which had extra-sensory perception. Leonora Piper, famous medium of her day, proposed this as an explanation of her abilities at automatic writing.
In the early 1900’s, society icon Marguerite Du Pont Lee (of the Delaware Du Pont’s) began experimenting with automatic writing. After the death of her friend, the Episcopal priest, Kemper Babcock, Lee reported having “episodes” of automatic writing which she contended came from Bocock. The messages told her to take photographs which she did, setting a picture of herself or Bocock on a chair and snapping a shot. Once developed, the photos sometimes revealed wispy, spectral faces and unexplainable balls of light. Some of the faces looked like Bocock himself.
With all the attention to automatic writing, the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) decided they needed to do some research into the phenomena. Edmund Gurney, author of Phantasms of the Living, demonstrated that subjects in a trance state could communicate information given to them, and be induced to write it out, even while the subject was speaking or reading aloud; similarly a mathematical problem could be worked out without the subject knowing they were doing it.
Automatic Writing also known as spirit writing or slate writing came into vogue during the early, American, spiritualist movement (c. 1850-1860). The Fox sisters first began the effort of communication with the dead, using a crude system of knocks and rapping’s. Like a spiritual Morse code, a language was worked out and messages slowly thumped out to be interpreted via the sisters.
It became clear that this form of communication, however, was laborious and thus spiritualists experimented with other forms in an effort to make communication faster and easier. As it evolved automatic writing took several forms. During the early period a planchette was used, a pointer on wheels, that spelled out a spirit message. Other mediums would use a small chalkboard and chalk. They would place the empty chalkboard and chalk under a table. When the scratching on the board was heard, the medium would extract the board, and read the message.
This form of spirit writing was, of course, easy to fake. A board full of markings could be placed under the table, and replaced with the empty board. The “spirit message” on the board could then be brought forth for the amazement and entertainment of the sitters (Blum, 2006).
In a highly publicized case, the British Zoologist, Ray Lankester, denounced the self-styled, American medium Henry Slade. Disgusted by such reports of slate writing, Lankester attended a sitting with Slade. When Slade placed the empty slate below the table, Lankester snatched it out - even before the chalk could be heard making noises. In his letter to the Times, Lankester described finding the board already filled with cryptic messages, obviously written ahead of time. So disgusted with the fraud, Lankester literally had Slade prosecuted. (Blum, 2006).
Several trance mediums using automatic writing claimed that they were in contact historical figures including famous authors, composer or politicians. Complete articles, poems, songs and even novels were written and later published, using automatic writing. The wife of the poet William Butler Yeats claimed to be capable of automatic writing, her scribbling becoming the inspiration for Yeats’ poetry.
Automatic Writing isn’t always about the written word. In some cases people with no artistic ability have produced works of professional quality art during automatic writing sessions. And one notable amateur musician has performed original compositions that she claims are channeled through Liszt and Debussy, among others.
Pearl Curran and Automatic WritingPerhaps the most famous experiment with automatic writing, was the case of Pearl Curran, a St. Louis housewife who produced several novels, one full play, 5000 poems and several short works that were published with critical acclaim, over the course of 25 years. By her own account, Curran had little education, played the piano and never read. Yet she produced materials that were beyond her scope of knowledge, using archaic language and making references to historical events.
The explanation? Curran claimed she was channeling an entity whose name was Patience Worth, born (so she claimed) in Dorset shire, England in either 1694 or 1649 (both years were dictated). (No historical documentation has been found confirming the existence of Patience Worth.) The entity, who was edgy about giving personal details, told Curran that she had come to America but had been murdered by Indians. But Patience said she didn’t really want to talk about her past, saying,
"About me ye would know much. Yesterday is dead. Let thy mind rest as to the past (Taylor, 2002)."
The relationship began with the Ouija board, but Curran finally realized that this method of communication was too cumbersome for the amount of information that Patience was sending through. Noting that whole sentences were forming in her head while the planchette scratched out slow, cumbersome messages, Curran eventually began writing the material out with a paper and pen, and eventually a typewriter (Taylor, 2002).
Curran, unlike other mediums, never entered a trance while dictating. She was by all accounts aware of and even spoke with other people in the room and was known to smoke or eat in the midst of dictation. Not only did she hear Pearl’s words, but Curran was also privy to seeing the scenes enacted. She described a pressure in her head as Pearl’s words began to flow, and then suddenly Curran would see the scenery, the trees, the birds the speakers and the objects. If characters were speaking a foreign language she would hear the language at the same time that Pearl was interpreting. And often Curran literally saw herself in the scene, moving about the characters as an onlooker.
The relationship continued for several years, but eventually became strained. Patience, while tolerant of her secretary, began making condescending remarks about Curran’s intelligence, often becoming exasperated with her lack of knowledge. At the age of 39, Curran became pregnant for the first time, at which time Patience began drifting away; their conversations becoming fewer and farther between, at the same time that public interest waned (Taylor, 2002).
Marguerite Du Pont Lee and the Spirit Photographs
Feeling she was on to something, Lee contacted William Keeler, an alleged spirit photographer. Keeler began taking photos of Lee and imprinting them with fake images of the deceased Bocock, amassing some 4000 fakes. Lee, perhaps sensing she’d been duped, contacted an investigator for the Society of Psychical Research, Walter F. Prince. Prince noted that in all the photos Bocock was always seen in profile either looking left or right, and that while the body changed greatly the heads of Bocock always looked the same. Prince deduced that Keeler was using two photographs of Bocock, the only two taken of him during his life, to create the fake images. Having discredited Keeler, the ordeal receded. What became of Lee’s photographs, which may indeed have revealed real phenomena, no one knows (Taylor, 2003).
Society for Psychical Research Experiments with Automatic Writing
In the book Ghost Hunters; William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death author Deborah Blum describes an experiment in automatic writing that spanned two continents and three sitters; including Leonora Piper, the celebrated medium of her day. The experiment began with Newnham College Classics Lecturer, Margaret Verrall. Verrall had been friends with the late Frederick Myers (one of the founders of the SPR). After Myers passed, Verrall decided to try to reach him from beyond, as she felt he would have desired. In order to do so, she decided to teach herself automatic writing.
For three months the tireless Verrall set aside an hour in the afternoon, when she would sit with paper and pencil at the ready, and wait, willing Myers to channel through her. Nothing happened. Finally she began to use the time to daydream, thinking of other things like her garden, her family, household chores, and she would come to only to find that the paper was covered in simplistic messages in Greek and Latin, and that they were signed at the bottom - “Myers (Blum, 2006).”
In Boston, medium Leonora Piper, through her medium guide Rector, started reporting having conversations with Myers as well. And what was striking was that the messages being reported through Piper’s séances were very similar to the messages showing up on Verrall’s paper. Even more interesting was the fact that the messages that came through to Piper were in the same Greek and Latin. Piper didn’t know either language.
Verrall taught her daughter Helen the trick of automatic writing, and Verrall, her daughter and Piper at their various locations began to receive similar messages which when compared were strikingly similar. Eventually the SPR decided to conduct an experiment in which messages would be given to Piper in Latin. The experimenters knew that Piper did know Latin, but that Myers had. So Myers would receive the message in Latin, translate it and send the translation and the reply to Verrall. They also experimented with sending anagrams Verrall would send the anagram rats, and Piper would receive the message- star - at the other end.
Whether automatic writing is truly communication with the other side or the tapping of a subconscious mind or alter ego remains debatable. But certainly the long history of automatic writing is an interesting chapter in the history of paranormal research.
Anonymous (2006) “Automatic Writing” The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 12, 2012 from http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Automatic_writing
Blum, Deborah (2006) Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Penguin Books. New York, New York.
Taylor, Troy (2002-2008) “The Mystery of Patience Worth”
A St. Louis Housewife & One of the Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of All Time”
A St. Louis Housewife & One of the Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of All Time”
The Haunted Museum; The Historic & Haunted Guide to the Supernatural
Retrieved June13, 2012 from
Taylor, Troy (2003-2008) “Automatic Writing; Communication from Spirits” The Haunted Museum; The Historic & Haunted Guide to the Supernatural. Retrieved June13, 2012 from
Wagner, Stephen. “How to Practice Automatic Writing.” About.com Retrieved June 12, 2012 from http://paranormal.about.com/cs/automaticwriting/ht/auto_writing.htm