The Cross-Correspondences, the Nature of Evidence and the Matter of Writing

Authored by: Leigh Wilson

The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

Print publication date:  July  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754669128
eBook ISBN: 9781315613352
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042280


 Download Chapter



At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which had worked so tirelessly for the previous two decades in the attempt to assess the veridical nature of the phenomena of spiritualism, began to investigate a new phenomenon, not this time one produced by tricksy mediums and authenticated by their credulous sitters, but one instead produced from the centre of the Society itself. The phenomenon began in 1901 when a number of mediums began to receive messages, 1 1

The main automatists and mediums who received the messages that made up the cross-correspondences were: Margaret Verrall, a Cambridge classicist and member of the SPR; her daughter, Helen Verrall; the Boston trance medium Mrs Piper; ‘Mrs Holland’, the pseudonym of Alice Fleming, the sister of Rudyard Kipling, then living in India; and ‘Mrs Willett’, the pseudonym of Mrs Winifred Coombe-Tennant.

mostly through automatic writing, but some through automatic speech then transcribed by sitters. These messages were fragmented and cryptic, to a large extent consisting of quotations from and allusions to classical texts and nineteenth-century poetry, including, to give some indication of the range and number, Browning, Milton, Sophocles, Keats, Tennyson, Homer, the Old Testament, Plato, Swedenborg, Dante, Euripides, Wordsworth, Virgil, Swinburne and Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary. During the first years of studying the messages, the SPR investigators came to believe that the elliptical messages were in part a plan constructed after death by a number of figures who had dominated the Society’s early years, in particular Edmund Gurney, Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers (Gurney died in 1888, Sidgwick in 1900, Myers in January 1901). This phenomenon became known as the cross-correspondences and dominated the work of the Society for Psychical Research during the first half of the twentieth century. Baffling communications received by two or more of the automatists only made sense when the messages were brought together, and when extra research uncovered connections initially unknown to either the mediums or the investigators. In this way, so the investigators thought, the dead psychical researchers were making it impossible to explain the communications as being produced by telepathy between the mediums. What they were doing, it seemed, was constructing a foolproof demonstration of their continued existence beyond death. 2 2

The cross-correspondences later came to be seen by their investigators as fragments which alluded to two coherent narratives; one concerning Arthur Balfour’s fiancée, who had died many years before, and one concerning plans for the conception of a ‘new messiah’, who would bring about world peace. The messages concerning each of these, however, shared the fundamental, elliptical and allusive form of the early cross-correspondences. For an account of the Balfour messages, see Jean Balfour, ‘The “Palm Sunday” Case: New Light on an Old Love Story’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 52 (1960), 79–267; for an account of the ‘new messiah’ messages, see Archie Roy, The Eager Dead: A Study in Haunting (Brighton, 2008)

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.