Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

33. Ectoplasm or delusion?

In December 1921 Filson was invited to a spiritualist séance organized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He had known Doyle since before the war, admiring both his stories and his ‘stalwart, straightforward personality’. More recently he had been impressed by his book The Vital Message, which claimed that the spirits of the dead can manifest themselves to the living, and he had given copies of this book to several of his friends and to his mother, who at eighty was ‘inevitably nearing the crossing from earthly life’. Filson had always been interested in spiritualism and had approached the subject in his own juvenile first book A Psychic Vigil. He told Conan Doyle how much he liked The Vital Message and that he wanted to learn more, so Doyle lent him books and arranged the séance so that Filson could judge for himself. He approached it with an open mind:

I believed it possible that I was on the threshold of an experience which might change my whole outlook upon life. I am one of those, neither believers nor sceptics, who find so muchwonder and mystery in life as we know it that the possibilities of the hidden and the unknown seem infinite.(18)

On the appointed day, December 13, Filson and the others who were to take part lunched with Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle – that is, everybody lunched except Sir Arthur, who claimed that fasting put him in a more spiritual frame of mind. The others present were the wife of an MP and her sister, the secretary of a spiritualist society, a ‘public singer’, a recently bereaved woman who had written to Doyle for help, and a young research scientist. The venue was the home in Highgate, north London, of a retired Indian Army colonel, an enthusiastic spiritualist who was to be their host for

the afternoon. While they waited for the arrival of the medium, a Mrs Johnson, the scientist showed some ‘spirit photographs’ he had taken:

they represented faces surrounded by a drapery of what looked like white chiffon but which I was assured was ektoplasm (19) – that disagreeable mystic substance, of the nature of india-rubber, which is said to ooze from all the orifices of the medium’s body, and if touched to go back with a snap.

Doyle promised them a wonderful afternoon, since the room was ‘simply saturated with Mrs Johnson’s ektoplasm’ already. Mrs Johnson herself soon arrived in the wake of her ectoplasm. She was a plump woman with a pleasant face who, Filson thought, looked pale and tired. She began by assuring everyone they were going to have a ‘nice time’, as they moved into a room where chairs had been arranged in a circle. They were told that spirit voices would only come if there was plenty of vibration; noise of any kind would help but music was best. The medium had brought a musical box and the scientist had a gramophone. A zinc trumpet about four feet long had been placed in the middle of the circle, its broader end on the floor. It was explained that ‘spiritual force’ would lift the trumpet and the fingernails of materialized spirit hands would be heard tapping it and moving it about in the air. Filson asked if they would see anything and was told no, but they would feel ‘psychic breezes’, blasts of air which blew when the psychic force was strongly developed. And if the trumpet or spirit hands touched them they must not be nervous – it discouraged the spirits – but just say thank you.

Mrs Johnson remarked that some people thought the voices were produced ventriloquially. ‘If I was as good a ventriloquist as all that,’ she said, ‘I should not be doing this, I should be on the music halls.’ This sally was received with ready laughter like that at a religious meeting when the minister makes a joke.

The light was switched off. As they sat in total darkness the medium said, ‘Shall we say our little prayer?’ and began to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone joined in. Then various kinds of noise were tried: general conversation (rather constrained in the circumstances) and a gramophone record. No result. Someone suggested a song, so Sir Arthur launched into ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and again everyone joined in.

At the end of it Sir Arthur said, ‘I am fairly bursting with ektoplasm. I can feel the power running about all over me.’ Fortunately these symptoms did not develop further, and the gramophone again obliged with the tune ‘Jingle Johnny’, in the chorus of which we were invited to join, and did.

At this point one of the medium’s usual ‘guide spirits’ – intermediaries between the living and the spirits of those they wanted to contact – was heard, speaking in a Glasgow accent. This, like the medium’s other ‘guide’, was supposed to be the spirit of a young soldier killed in the recent war. Listening in the dark, Filson sensed that the voice was coming from the tube of the trumpet which seemed to be waving about in the air, and he could hear fingernails tapping on it. The company were urged to sing the guide spirit’s favourite song, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles In The Old Kit Bag’. Presently a second guide spirit was heard, speaking in a Lancashire accent, and for some time there was conversation between the two guides and the medium, though they never spoke simultaneously, Filson noticed. His trained musician’s ear also noticed two other things: the same individual inflections could be heard in the speech of all three, and the Lancashire accent sounded phony to someone like himself brought up in Manchester.

But he was so much under the spell of the general atmosphere that he felt almost ashamed of noticing such things. Soon the voice of a new spirit was heard, supposedly the dead child of the spiritualist society secretary. This lady was three places to Filson’s left and the medium four places to his right, and with the trumpet apparently horizontal in front of him he could hear a sort of double voice, one part of it on his left and a heavier and breathier sound near the medium on his right. He decided to experiment.

Meanwhile the musical box was played – ‘so much more spiritual than the gramophone,’ the MP’s wife remarked to her neighbour – and the medium urged the company’s flagging voices through ‘Sun of My Soul’ and, once more, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in the Old Kit Bag’. Suddenly a low voice was heard in front of the lady on Filson’s right. People said: ‘Someone is trying to speak to you; it is evidently someone who has never been through before; the voices are very faint at first; we must make more noise.’ The gramophone was wound up again and ‘Jingle Johnny’ was sung; this time Filson didn’t sing but listened carefully. The voice that seemed to be coming from the trumpet didn’t speak again until the music was finished, then spoke to the lady next to Filson: ‘Is that you, dear?’ The lady was clearly moved and entirely credulous: ‘Perhaps it is my mother. Is that you, darling? Speak to me, mother. Oh do speak to me, I am not in the least afraid.’ The supposed spirit then made the sort of vague, general remarks anyone might have made, such as ‘It is all right now, dear, I am quite happy.’ The medium told Filson’s neighbour, ‘Encourage her, perhaps she will touch you.’ Filson acted. He touched the lady on the knee, arm and dress, at which, shaking all over, she told her mother in an extremely emotional voice that she could feel her touch and begged her to say more. The spirit voice seemed to be somewhere near Filson’s knee. He reached out and and touched the broad end of the trumpet; the other end seemed to be somewhere in the direction of the medium. When he grasped his end the other end was immediately released. With immense care, avoiding any noise or unnecessary movement, he lifted the trumpet over his neighbour’s head and laid it gently on the floor outside the circle behind Conan Doyle, who was sitting on the lady’s other side.

From the moment Filson seized the trumpet there were no more spirit voices. For about forty minutes more the company sang hymns, talked and listened to the gramophone while the medium assured them that the ‘power’ was immensely strong in the middle of the room. During one of the hymns Filson twisted round again, fished for the trumpet in the dark, lifted it back over the heads of his neighbours and put it down in the circle – out of reach of the medium. The initiated were still confident the spirits would return, insisting that they never finally went away without first dropping the trumpet with a bang on the floor. Filson knew this could not happen since he had made sure the trumpet was out of reach of the spirits. He was getting bored and suggested to Conan Doyle that they might get better results if he went away since he was not deeply impressed, but Conan Doyle urged him to stay. Eventually the séance ended and the light was turned on. The position of the trumpet was noted but, as if by common agreement, not discussed. As they got up Conan Doyle turned to Filson: ‘Well, I am sorry we have not had more exciting results, but at any rate you have heard something definite; you have heard manifestations about which there can be no denial.’ Tea was to follow, but Filson pleaded an urgent engagement. As he was putting on his coat in the hall he managed to speak for a moment to the lady who had been sitting next to him, telling her about the trumpet and adding, ‘I cannot go without telling you that the person who touched you was not your mother but me; and the voice you heard was not your mother’s but Mrs Johnson’s.’ Then before she could say anything he left.

Next day Filson wrote to Conan Doyle to tell him what he thought of the séance (20):

14th December 1921

My dear Conan Doyle,

I must thank you and Lady Conan Doyle for your hospitality yesterday, and for your kindness in arranging for me to take part in the séance.

As you know, I went to it with an open and sympathetic mind; reading your book had produced a very strong effect upon me and had inclined me towards agreement with its interpretation of the philosophy of spiritualism. My experience of the séance has done nothing to weaken that impression, but it has done nothing to strengthen it, because I am convinced that what happened in the house at Highgate has little or nothing to do with what you have written about. I was in a perfectly calm and observant mood; I have an extremely highly-trained musical ear, abnormally sensitive to inflections in dialects and pronunciation; I have also a long experience of organ-pipes, resonators and the acoustic effects of tubes.

I can say at once to you about this séance that no manifestation of supernatural force occurred there; that the origin and method of production of such manifestations as did occur were plainly apparent to me. To my very great regret I came to the clear conclusion that, with one possible exception, the people present were unconsciously but very willingly deceiving themselves and one another.

You will not be pleased with me for this, but I cannot be anything less than candid with you. If you are convinced I am wrong and can introduce me to a séance where I am likely to see materialization of some body, I may afterwards be able to tell you something more about it. If I am to see anything of that kind I would rather wait until I have seen it before telling you what I have to tell about the occurrences yesterday afternoon.

Yours sincerely,

Filson Young.

This crossed in the post a letter from Conan Doyle :

14th December 1921

Dear Sir,

I was shocked and amazed to learn from Mrs — that you had admitted to her after the séance that you had been producing bogus phenomena and had seized the trumpet, thus interfering with the proceedings and spoiling the sitting. I could not have conceived you capable, as my guest, of acting in such a manner. I fear that this unpleasant incident must be the end of our acquaintance. I have apologized to Mrs Johnson and the others.

Yours faithfully,

A. Conan Doyle

PS. – I held this over for twenty-four hours lest I should seem to write in anger.

Filson was not prepared to leave it at that and at once wrote to Doyle again. His letter was delivered the same day and got an immediate reply.

15th December 1921

Dear Conan Doyle,

Your letter, which I think silly in form and angry in spirit, shall not prevent me from saying that I do not accept your designation of my conduct at this séance. You asked me to ‘come and see’ for myself; but as we were in pitch darkness I was left to rely on my senses of touch and hearing to detect the dreary fraud that was practised upon you. You evidently do not even wish to hear what I discovered; but as you have taken upon yourself to ‘apologize’ for me to people whom I do not know, I must vindicate myself. There was no compact or suggestion that this was a conspiracy in which I was to join, or that the test of common sense was not to be applied. You invited it; and if the result of its application is what your letter suggests, your science, I fear, is in a bad way. But for me, this poor woman would have gone home in the belief that her dead mother had touched and spoken to her; and that I regard as a rather sinister matter.

I shall publish the facts, and you will be free to make what reply you like.

Yours sincerely,

Filson Young.

15th December 1921


To publish proceedings which are the result of a private invitation to a private house is quite consistent with the rest of your conduct. The only credulity shown by any of the company was our believing that you were a gentleman. This also you may publish.

Yours faithfully,

A. Conan Doyle. (21)

Filson waited till after the Christmas and New Year holiday season before publishing the material quoted above in the Saturday Review. He argued that if he himself had been convinced by the séance, Conan Doyle would certainly have expected publicity, and that the public had just as much right to know why he was not convinced. He sent copies of his article in advance of publication to the leading dailies. The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily News and others quoted long extracts, while the Evening News went further and secured a long interview with the medium, Mrs Johnson, which they published on their front page the day the Saturday Review came out. They also hurried round to see Conan Doyle, who told them Filson had spoiled the séance with ‘monkey tricks’. Their reporter found Mrs Johnson still with the Indian Army colonel at his Highgate house. She complained that Filson’s interference with the trumpet had caused her disturbed digestion and sleeplessness, while the colonel explained that trumpet mediums were as rare as radium and that great care had to be taken of them. Mrs Johnson said she had been a medium for thirty years and that spirits had spoken to her in many languages that she didn’t know:

‘I think it is a pity that Mr Filson Young does not give us a longer investigation. He has only been once, and promiscuous sitters seldom get good results. If you produce a tricky atmosphere you will get a trick.’ (22)

In short, Filson had not ‘played the game’.

Ten consecutive issues of the Evening News carried something connected in one way or another with the controversy, ranging from a general defence of spiritualism by Conan Doyle to an angry letter from a doctor, himself a spiritualist, who examined Mrs Johnson after the séance:

I could not believe that anyone with the ability of Mr Filson Young, who wrote his delightful Wagner Stories as long ago as 1908 [sic], would have acted as he did when investigating the mediumship of Mrs Roberts Johnson while the guest of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I have examined Mrs Roberts Johnson since the unpleasant experience, and found her suffering from shock, with indications of severe nervous dyspepsia and lowered vitality. (23)

One can understand the indignation of serious students of spiritualism. The Society for Psychical Research, to which Mrs Johnson’s doctor belonged, and whose secretary seems to have been present at the Highgate séance, was founded in 1882 with the aim of establishing a proper method of investigating supernatural phenomena; it still exists today but has not yet achieved its aim. According to a review published some years ago of a new book by one of its members:

Seances became inextricably confused with social fashion and entertainment so that ‘results’ became of paramount importance and cheating, even by mediums whose other work had been impressive, did undoubtedly take place: just one such detection could wreck the research of years and no academic of reputation could persist in his investigations for long. There were too many daft people in the game, and there still are. (24)

For the newspapers it was all great fun. It was said that a medium could be hurt if you touched ectoplasm while it was oozing from her because it would snap back like rubber and, according to the Daily Mail, a man present at another Conan Doyle séance had ‘so faked a photograph that he produced a picture in which a band of fairies were seen dancing round Sir Arthur’s neck’.

Meanwhile Conan Doyle sent Filson-as-editor a long answer to Filson-as-contributor’s ‘Hymns and Humbug’ article of the previous week. Filson published it, but not before interpolating mocking comments of his own and adding a summing-up. He also sent the lot round to the leading dailies, who fastened on it avidly. ‘Trumpet Seance: Conan Doyle-Filson Young Duel: A Breezy Exchange’ announced the evening Westminster Gazette on January 27, but what must have particularly incensed Doyle was the Daily Mail of that morning, which reported: ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has written a reply to Mr Filson Young for publication in his next issue, and has forwarded a copy of it to us’, but then went on to quote not from Doyle’s unadulterated text but from the version with Filson’s sarcastic comments and ‘Final Remarks’.

The full text of this took up three pages of the next Saturday Review, and for good measure Filson added ten readers’ letters all supporting himself (one wonders how many hostile ones he suppressed). Conan Doyle had opened his defence by stating that he accepted Filson’s account of the séance as fair though ill-natured, and with one or two omissions. He then drew attention to various details (Filson interpolated his own comments in brackets):

You then thought it right to seize the trumpet which was in mid-air. Between the lady who was receiving the message and the medium there was my own rather broad frame, and on my right my wife, who assures me that she was in such close touch of the medium that any movement would have been detected. She assures me also, and I can partly corroborate, that the medium was talking to those about her while the message was going through. How then can you possibly establish your case that it was the medium who was bending forward past two sitters and talking to the third one? It is a physical impossibility, and enough in itself to stamp you as an incompetent observer.

(Physical impossibility? The line between the medium and the lady who was being humbugged was an arc of our circle. The circumference of a circle lies outside its arc, therefore your broad frame was not ‘between’ those two points, in the sense that a line between them would have to cut through it. Even Watson would admit this.)

As to the direction of the trumpet, of course it pointed away from her, since the power comes from her and the trumpet is actually attached to her by an ectoplasmic band.

(Good heavens!)

It is really your own want of knowledge and experience, and not the medium, which you are exposing all the time. If you would appreciate that this is a deep matter, and that it is impossible that a tyro could solve at the first glance what has baffled so many thousand, you would have gained the beginnings of wisdom.

You seized the trumpet and you felt resistance. This is entirely what one could expect, since the trumpet is held by the aforesaid ectoplasmic rod, which is a material object. You put the trumpet on the floor and the proceedings stopped. What is there in all this? It could not have been otherwise. Even mental want of harmony can retard or spoil a séance, and when on the top of this is added levity, deceit, and actual physical interference there was no possibility of re-establishing those delicate conditions which are essential to success. The medium I may add was ill for several days afterwards, and complained to my wife at the first moment you touched the trumpet of the sickness which she experienced.

(This is curious. No complaint was heard at the time that this ecto-umbilical outrage took place. On the contrary the medium kept on asserting that the power was ‘building up very strongly’, and assured us that we should have some more ‘wonderful’ results, and you all went on singing and hoping for another forty minutes. If this ghastly occurrence had really taken place and, as I understand it, the medium’s ectoplasmic entrails had been torn from her, I cannot understand why she did not mention it at the time, or, if she did mention it to Lady Conan Doyle, why that lady did not immediately, in the interests of humanity, or of ecto-humanity, stop the séance.)

These are the exact facts, and if, and if at any point you dispute them I am prepared to get the testimony of all who were present. (25)

And so on. Having the previous week delivered his speech as Counsel for the Prosecution, and having now cross-examined the Defence, Filson assumed his judge’s wig to deliver the Summing Up:

I confess that any leanings I may have had towards spiritualism have been effectively discouraged by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and for that I thank him. I do not at all understand why he should have been so annoyed with me [...] (26)

Doyle, he went on, had tried to divert attention from the enquiry into whether the medium was fraudulent or not by accusing Filson of not behaving like a gentleman.

As to my ‘ungentlemanly conduct’, I am in a little difficulty. I was not invited to a tea party at Colonel Cowley’s house; and the occasion was not regarded by me as a social one. I regarded it as an opportunity for testing very solemn assertions, of the truth of which I required evidence before I could believe them. It was of much more importance to discover their truth than to conform to the standard of conduct required from people who attend musical parties in a dark room in Highgate. Mrs Johnson accuses me (Evening News) of not ‘playing the game’. If I had understood that we were playing a game in which certain rules were to be observed, and in which the control of the toys was to be entirely in the hands of certain people, I should have declined the invitation. I am therefore not to be blamed for having attempted to ascertain the truth instead of being content to be merely polite to a person whom I believed to be engaged in a fraudulent performance. It is no doubt very rude to interrupt a pick-pocket and hand him over to the police; but it is more important to protect your property.

Since Mrs Johnson had been paid to act as a medium, she risked imprisonment for fraud. There was a real philosophy of spiritualism and a quack philosophy:

Surrounded by a world full of beauty and true spiritualism, as well as of pain and suffering, they turn their eyes from the study of the things about them, the meaning of which can only be discerned through the heart and mind, to the study of things which they claim can be observed with the aid of trumpets, tambourines, chewed paper, feeble jokes and manifestations of a kind which most people take trouble to avoid in this world, and will certainly not hope to encounter in the next.

The Saturday delivered its parting shot a fortnight later in an anonymous review entitled ‘Ectoplasmorrhoea’ – it must have been written by Filson – of the latest volume of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. As for Conan Doyle, he spent much of the remaining nine years of his life travelling the world preaching his gospel of spiritualism. First, in the spring of 1922, he went to the United States, where he made little impression on most of his lecture audiences. The sound of his battle with Filson had carried across the Atlantic. P.W.Wilson wrote in the course of a long and very critical article in the New York Times:

Doyle’s attitude of mind has sometimes seemed to be that any independent person who goes to a séance and detects chicanery is guilty of a personal affront, a breach of faith. In one case, there is published a letter from him actually severing friendly relations with Filson Young because the impious person, at a séance, detected in a few minutes what Mr Hudson calls the hocus pocus. (27)

On reading this, Conan Doyle immediately wrote to the editor:

I will not answer P.W.Wilson’s very prejudiced and one-sided article so far as it relates to myself, but there are some points of fact which I must set right, as otherwise it might seem that I acquiesced in them.

He speaks of my rupture with Mr Filson Young as having been because he exposed some hocus pocus at a séance. I quarrelled with Mr Young because when he was my guest at a séance he himself personated a spirit and played faked tricks on other sitters. He has admitted this. Does Mr Wilson defend that conduct? If not, what is it that he is complaining of? (28)

And there the matter rested.


18  This and the next three quotations come from Filson’s article ‘Hymns and Humbug’ in the Saturday Review 21 Jan 1922.

19  Filson switched to the more usual spelling ‘ectoplasm’ a week later.

20  This and the rest of the correspondence between Filson and Conan Doyle is reproduced at the end of the same article, Saturday Review 21 Jan 1922.

21  The whole of this correspondence was reproduced by Filson at the end of his article ‘Hymns and Humbug’ in the Saturday Review, 21 Jan 1922.

22  The Evening News, 21 Jan 1922. ‘Promiscuous’ here means ‘casual’.

23  Abraham Wallace, M.D., letter to the editor published 26 Jan 1922.

24  Michael Ratcliffe, review of Brian Inglis: Natural and Supernatural, in the Times 26 Jan 1978. The comment refers to the period up to 1914, but 1921 was probably much the same.

25  Article ‘Ectoplasm or Delusion?’ in the Saturday Review, 28 Jan 1922.

26  This and the next two quotations come from ‘Some Final Remarks’ in the Saturday Review, 28 Jan 1922.

27  New York Times III, 1:1, 18 June 1922.

28  New York Times 14:6, 22 June 1922.

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