Book review: Did Jesus Exist?

Michael Prescott - Tue, 24/11/2015 - 6:55pm

There aren't too many areas where some New Agers and some dedicated atheists find common ground, but one of them is the question of the historical reality – or unreality – of Jesus Christ. If you Google Jesus + myth, you'll come up with thousands of websites arguing that Jesus never lived – that he was invented by his earliest followers, who were influenced by astrology, numerology, pagan myths, and even Hinduism.*

Enter Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman is a professor of New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He is not a Christian; he describes himself as an agnostic inclined toward atheism. So we’re not dealing here with a conservative or fundamentalist Christian committed at the outset to the accuracy of biblical accounts. Quite the contrary; Ehrman is very skeptical of much of the material reported about Jesus in the Gospels, and believes that what we can know about him with any high degree of certainty is limited to only a few core statements.

Nevertheless, he is convinced that Jesus was a real historical figure. And in this he is far from alone. As Ehrman takes pains to point out in Did Jesus Exist?, virtually all of his colleagues in academia agree with this basic proposition. He writes:

I should say at the outset that none of this [Jesus-as-myth] literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world)….

But a couple of bona fide scholars – not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them with a Ph.D. in the field of New Testament – have taken this position and written about it. Their books may not be known to most of the general public interested in questions relating to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice….

The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be "mythicists" – that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth…. His life and teachings were invented by early storytellers. He never really lived….

The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.

Much of the book is devoted to backing up this claim with an extensive and highly interesting discussion of ancient literary sources. I won't attempt to summarize this presentation, which is both readable and concise (though sometimes a bit repetitive). I think any open-minded person – anyone not already committed to the mythicist perspective – would find it convincing.

Having established with a very high degree of probability that there was a real person named Jesus operating in first century Palestine as a prophet and wonderworker, and that he was crucified by the Romans around the year 30 A.D., Ehrman goes on to critique the more serious proponents of the Christ-myth hypothesis. But early on, before he deals with the scholars who need to be taken seriously, he has a little fun with the non-scholars who've tackled this subject in popular books and on innumerable websites.

Since these are the authors who seem to have the most influence in both New Age and materialist circles, it's worth quoting some of what Ehrman has to say. In what is quoted below, the material in square brackets is Ehrman's, not mine. 

In 1999, under the nom de plume Acharya S, D. M. Murdock published the breathless conspirator's dream: The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold….

The book is filled with so many factual errors and outlandish assertions that it is hard to believe that the author is serious. If she is serious, it is hard to believe that she has ever encountered anything resembling historical scholarship. Her "research" appears to have involved reading a number of nonscholarly books that say the same thing she is about to say and then quoting them. One looks in vain for the citation of a primary ancient source, and quotations from real experts (Elaine Pagels, chiefly) are ripped from their context and misconstrued....

The basic argument of the book is that Jesus is the son-god: “Thus the son of God is the sun of God."...

Just to give a sense of the level of scholarship in this sensationalist tome, I list a few of the howlers one encounters en route, in the order in which I found them....

The "true meaning of the word gospel is 'God's Spell,' as in magic hypnosis and delusion" (45). [No, the word gospel comes to us from the old English term god spel, which means "good news" – a fairly precise translation of the Greek word euaggelion. It has nothing to do with magic.]....

The church father “Irenaeus was a Gnostic" (60). [In fact, he was one of the most virulent opponents of Gnostics in the early church.]

Augustine was "originally a Mandaean, i.e., a Gnostic, until after the Council of Nicaea" (60). [Augustine was not even born until 19 years after the Council of Nicaea, and he certainly was no Gnostic.]

Ehrman has even more to say about the hapless Acharya, with whom I had a brief contretemps online way back in 2007 (see the comments thread of this post). Even in that discussion, Acharya managed to produce another "howler," when she misidentified the author of Revelation as James (it was someone named John; he identifies himself in the text.) 

My impression, however, is that the sun-god theory takes a backseat in popularity to the evergreen notion that Jesus was just another instance of a dying-and-rising pagan god, a view that enjoyed considerable popularity in the early 20th century after the publication of James Frazer’s famous work The Golden Bough. The trouble is that Frazer's understanding of pagan mythology was deeply flawed, and the gods he described as being resurrected were not actually seen that way in the ancient world.

As one example, it is sometimes said that the Egyptian god Osiris was resurrected after his dismembered body was reassembled by his sister Isis. This is incorrect. Osiris did not come back to earthly life. The ancient Egyptians believed that the body had to be intact in order for the soul to survive, which is why they placed so much emphasis on mummification and preservation of the corpse. The point of reassembling Osiris’s violated corpse was to allow his soul to journey to the afterlife, which (we are told) it did.

As Ehrman notes, today's main popularizers of the dying-and-rising God theory as applied to Jesus are Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, authors of the 1999 book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? Ehrman writes:

In [Freke and Gandy’s] view, … Jesus was not a sun-god. He was a creation based on the widespread mythologies of dying and rising gods known throughout the pagan world....

This divine figure was called by various names in the pagan mysteries: Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Bacchus, Mithras. But "fundamentally all these God men are the same mythical being" (4). The reason that Freke and Gandy think so is that supposedly all these figures share the same mythology: their father was God; their mother was a mortal virgin; each was born in a cave on December 25 before three shepherds and wise men; among their miracles they turned water to wine; they all rode into town on a donkey; they all were crucified at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world; they descended to hell; and on the third day they rose again....

What, for example is the proof that Osiris was born on December 25 before three shepherds? Or that he was crucified? And that his death brought atonement for sin? Or that he returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead? In fact, no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods).

As he did with Acharya, Ehrman lists a series of blunders committed by Freke and Gandy in their magnum opus. Again, words in brackets are Ehrman's.

A sampling:

Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire (11). [No, he did not. He made it a legal religion. It was not made the state religion until the end of the fourth century under Theodosius.]

Eleusinian mysteries focused on the godman Dionysus (18, 22). [Not true. These mysteries were not about Dionysus but about the goddess Demeter.]

"Descriptions by Christian authorities of Christian baptism are indistinguishable from pagan descriptions of Mystery baptism" (36). [How could we possibly know this? We don't have a single description in any source of any kind of baptism in the mystery religions.]

The Romans "completely destroyed the state of Judaica in 112 CE" (178). [This is a bizarre claim. There was not even a war between Rome and Judea in 112 CE; there were wars in 66–70 and in 132–35 CE.]

After having disposed of both the popular and the more scholarly mythicists, Ehrman devotes the last portion of his book to a discussion of what we can really know about the historical Jesus besides the mere fact of his existence. This is basically a recapitulation of his earlier book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, arguing that Jesus foretold the imminent end of the world and sought to bring it about by his own self-sacrifice.

Here I'm not so sure I agree with Ehrman; I'm more inclined to the view proposed by N.T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God. In brief, Wright believes that Jesus was not prophesying the end of the world but the destruction of Jerusalem – a prophecy that came true in 70 A.D. when the Romans crushed a Jewish uprising and destroyed the Temple, which was the focal point of Jewish religious observance at the time. Though Jesus is reported as using eschatological language – the sun and moon will go dark, etc. – Wright shows clearly that this type of language was used by Hebrew prophets throughout history in a poetical and metaphorical way to highlight predictions of political and military catastrophe.

If this is true, where did we get the idea of the Second Coming, which is so central to later Christian thought? One possibility is that reports of Jesus' resurrection led to the conviction that the end of the world was nigh, inasmuch as some first century Jews believed that the End Times would be accompanied by a general resurrection. Jesus, then, was seen as the "first fruits" (Paul's phrase) of the coming resurrection of all humanity. This could be why Paul and other early Christians expected the end to come soon, even if Jesus himself had not made any such prediction, at least during his earthly ministry.

I find Wright's thesis pretty convincing, though Ehrman's viewpoint is more in line with the scholarly consensus today.

In any case, regardless of what Jesus may have taught about the end of the world, he certainly did exist; he was not invented out of whole cloth as a sun-god, a dying-and-rising god, or any other mythic pagan archetype. This is the main point of Ehrman’s book. For those who may have been tempted to think otherwise by the trendiness of the mythicist position, Did Jesus Exist? is most highly recommended.


*… and even Hinduism. Ehrman tells us of a 1791 essay by Francois Volney, who claimed that the early Christians “derived Jesus's most common epithet, ‘Christ’ from the similar sounding name of the Indian God Krishna." This, of course, is ridiculous; the word Christ, or Christos in ancient Greek, means “the anointed,” and as such is a straightforward translation of the Hebrew word messiah, which also means "the anointed." Needless to say, it is exceedingly unlikely that any first century Palestinian Jews had the slightest knowledge of the Hindu pantheon. And Christos doesn't sound all that much like Krishna anyway.

Categories: Fortean

Coast to Coast AM: Bobo and Bigfoot Tonight

Cryptomundo - Fri, 20/11/2015 - 7:41pm
Categories: Fortean

Newsweek: Bigfoot

Cryptomundo - Thu, 19/11/2015 - 8:22pm
Newsweek special edition on our favorite cryptid: Bigfoot!
Categories: Fortean

The Notorious B.I.G.FOOT

Cryptomundo - Wed, 18/11/2015 - 3:36pm
The NY Daily News profiles Bigfoot and Bigfooters.
Categories: Fortean

Mothman Memories: 49 Years Ago

Cryptomundo - Tue, 17/11/2015 - 9:28pm
Yesterday was the 49th anniversary of the Scarberry/Mallette Mothman sighting, which was the start of the Mothman phenomena and ending with the collapse of the Silver Bridge thirteen months later.
Categories: Fortean

Skepticism on the couch

Michael Prescott - Mon, 16/11/2015 - 11:41pm

Normally I'm reluctant to engage in psychologizing. It's impolite to presume knowledge of other people's subconscious minds and to infer motivations that are supposedly hidden even from the persons under consideration. Besides, psychologizing is a double-edged sword; the people we're analyzing can always come back with none-too-flattering assertions about our own subconscious motivations. As a debating tactic, a way of scoring points, psychologizing is both counterproductive and unfair.

Still, there are some disagreements where the psychology of the participants plays such a large role that it simply must be acknowledged. To pretend it's not a factor is dishonest. The never-ending debate between proponents of psi and Skeptics is one such case.

I've observed Skeptics in many forums over many years. (Note the capital S, denoting militant debunkers, a nomenclature proposed by Roger Knights. I'm not talking about casual scoffers or people who are genuinely undecided.) My impression is that Skeptics, in general, are characterized by an extreme aversion to cognitive dissonance.

Wikipedia says,

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance — as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.

The relevant portion of the definition in the first paragraph is: "... or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values."

No one has a monopoly on this kind of mental stress. All of us are uncomfortable when our cherished beliefs and preconceptions are challenged by a contrary opinion or a troubling factual claim. All of us are prone to cognitive dissonance to some extent. But Skeptics, I believe, typically carry this mindset to the nth degree. They are supersensitive to the discomfort, stress, and — yes — pain of having their worldview challenged.

When such a Skeptic is presented with evidence of the paranormal, he finds it deeply upsetting. He does not see it as a mildly annoying paradox or a funny, quirky story suitable for cocktail party conversation. He feels that it is an existential threat — a threat to the integrity of his ego, and therefore to his sense of self.

This is why Skeptics are stridently hostile to parapsychology research. They cheer when a parapsychology lab closes. They insist that parapsychology papers be excluded from peer-reviewed journals, on principle. They agitate to have parapsychology, as a field, ousted from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If they were really interested in getting to the truth, they would want more research, more discussion, more openness. If parapsychology is a scam, why not expose it by making it as public as possible? But they want to shut it out of polite discussion or shut down the enterprise altogether. This makes sense only if they are motivated by a secret fear that parapsychology will prove them wrong (as, in my opinion, it already has).

A clear example of this psychology was on display in a public debate between Rupert Sheldrake and Lewis Wolpert. Sheldrake screened a short video about experiments involving a parrot who (unlikely as it may sound) seemed to exhibit telepathy. He saw that Wolpert had turned away and was refusing to watch. Later in the debate he pointed this out:

Well, I noticed that when the parrot film was showing, Lewis wasn't looking at it! That film was shown on television and in [an] early stage of our investigations, he did the same then. They asked a sceptic to commentate. Lewis appeared on the screen and he said, Telepathy is just junk; there is no evidence whatsoever for any personal, animal or thing being telepathic. The filmmakers were surprised that he hadn't actually asked to see the evidence before he commented on it, and I think, this is rather like the Cardinal Bellarmine and people not wanting to look through Galileo's Telescope. I think we have a level here of just not wanting to know, which is not real science. I'm sorry to have to say it, Lewis.

Some people would see Wolpert's refusal to watch as stubbornness or closed-mindedness, or as a debating tactic, but I think aversion to cognitive dissonance is likely to be the deeper explanation. It would have been almost physically painful for him to pay attention to a video that so directly challenged his beliefs. Instead he acted like a child who claps his hands over his ears and sings "La la la!" rather than hear upsetting words.

Because any evidence for psi or life after death is so disturbing to him, the Skeptic tends to avoid it whenever possible. But if he cannot avoid it, then he must find a way to neutralize it. The need is urgent, which is why the first available explanation consistent with his preconceptions is eagerly seized upon. This is also why Skeptics are "debunkers" at heart; their impulse is not to engage with the evidence but to dismiss it as quickly as possible.

This accounts for the tendency of Skeptics to come up with a quick-and-dirty explanation of any troubling phenomenon. Because cognitive dissonance is so painful for Skeptics, they often do not even read the cases closely — or if they do read them, they don't absorb or retain what they're reading. It's a defense mechanism. Rather than engage with the material, which would make them deeply uncomfortable, they skim it, find the first detail they can "debunk," and declare the case closed. They can safely forget it. Dissonance has been resolved, and order is restored. (Matt Rouge, a commenter here, calls this "the fallacy of the glancing blow.")

Some people, noting the poverty of many ad hoc Skeptical explanations, decide that Skeptics are unintelligent or consciously dishonest. I don't think this is true. While a few may be dishonest and/or not too bright, I believe most Skeptics are of above-average intelligence and are not intentionally deceitful. Their hastily proffered explanations fail because the Skeptic does not take the time to treat the material seriously. Like Lewis Wolpert, he just wants to avert his eyes from any troubling claims.

A Skeptic encountering evidence of the paranormal is like the stereotypical woman in a movie farce who discovers a spider in her hair. Does she pause to calmly assess the situation? No, she starts batting wildly at her head, screaming, "Get it off me!" In this state of mind, even the most intelligent and knowledgeable person will be hard pressed to think logically. Panic makes anyone stupid.

But what happens when the first, hastily contrived explanation fails? Then another explanation must be cobbled together immediately and affirmed with the same absolutism. If that one fails, another will be seized on, and another, and another — none of which will satisfactorily address the evidence (at least in the stronger cases), but all of which will serve to protect the mind from the agonies of doubt and ambiguity, which are simply intolerable.

On the other hand, many proponents of the paranormal have a high tolerance for ambiguity. Exceptions exist; there are paranormalists who are just as defensive and reactionary as any Skeptic. But for the most part, people who have made an in-depth study of psi and related phenomena are able to maintain a state of doubt for years without undue discomfort.

I believe that these two mindsets — a fairly high degree of comfort with ambiguity, versus an extreme aversion to ambiguity — are the major psychological divide between the Skeptical and paranormalist camps, and the main reason they so frequently talk past each other.

It doesn't help that, in my observation, Skeptics are not good at introspection. They are largely unacquainted with their own psychology and thus blind to their biases. They may even flatter themselves with the belief that they are uniquely unbiased. Biases are for other people, not them. This is in line with their avoidance of cognitive dissonance; any admission of their own bias would create some doubt about their conclusions.

Of course, this type of psychology is not limited to Skeptics. It can be found in many people, including some who are very successful. More than a few high-ranking politicians and business leaders seem to have this mindset. It is, in some ways, socially advantageous. A person who permits himself no doubts can inspire others to follow him. "He must know what he's doing," people say. "He's always so sure of himself." Since most people are beset by doubts, they admire someone who seems to have none.

Insecure people, in general, are likely to idolize those who seem unafflicted by inner conflicts. They don't realize that the appearance is a mirage, and that their heroes are merely exceptionally good at papering over their own doubts, concealing them even from themselves. 

Categories: Fortean

Valley of the Sasquatch Returns to WA

Cryptomundo - Fri, 13/11/2015 - 8:40pm
Valley of the Sasquatch returns to Washington tonight for a Friday the 13th screening at the Olympia Film Festival.
Categories: Fortean

Bigfoot Captured: Meldrum’s Thoughts

Cryptomundo - Fri, 13/11/2015 - 6:16pm
ISU professor disappointed in History Channel’s 'Bigfoot Captured' Idaho State University professor and Bigfoot aficionado Jeff Meldrum hasn’t seen the History Channel documentary he was featured in yet, but as he continues to hear the opinions of those who viewed it, he’s starting to believe it reflects the channel’s recent foray into more abstract and paranormal programming.
Categories: Fortean

Bigfoot Captured: Something Eerie in the Woods

Cryptomundo - Fri, 13/11/2015 - 1:42pm
The stakes escalate in a search for Bigfoot when a film crew hears something mysterious in the woods in this scene from "Bigfoot Captured."
Categories: Fortean

Bigfoot Captured: 3D-Printing a Bigfoot Skeleton

Cryptomundo - Thu, 12/11/2015 - 7:32pm
Take a look at the steps involved in creating a three-dimensional printing of a potential Bigfoot skeleton with Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum in this scene from "Bigfoot Captured."
Categories: Fortean

Bigfoot Captured: Abominable?

Cryptomundo - Wed, 11/11/2015 - 8:08pm
...The History Channel aired a two-hour special entitled Breaking History: Bigfoot Captured, a title presumably chosen because it directly refers to the mission of said program in breaking any conceivable perception that a network like History Channel might possibly air programs about, oh I don’t know, history.
Categories: Fortean

Bigfoot Captured: Full Episode

Cryptomundo - Wed, 11/11/2015 - 1:59pm
Could something resembling a massive man-ape really be roaming forests and hiding in the shadows undetected?
Categories: Fortean

Shipton Yeti Track Anniversary

Cryptomundo - Tue, 10/11/2015 - 2:32pm
Now 64 years since the famous Shipton Yeti Tracks were found and photographed.
Categories: Fortean

Printing Bigfoot

Cryptomundo - Tue, 10/11/2015 - 1:34am
ISU creates 3-D skeleton of "Bigfoot" for History Channel program
Categories: Fortean

Bigfoot Captured Tonight!

Cryptomundo - Mon, 09/11/2015 - 9:38pm
Could something resembling a massive man-ape really be roaming forests and hiding in the shadows undetected?
Categories: Fortean

Cliff Barackman Talks Bigfoot

Cryptomundo - Mon, 09/11/2015 - 6:58pm
Centralia College’s Student Activities Team is hosting well known Bigfoot researcher Cliff Barackman at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 9, in room 121 of the Walton Science Center on the college campus.
Categories: Fortean

Home sweet Home

Michael Prescott - Wed, 04/11/2015 - 8:25pm

In a previous comments thread, Amos Oliver Doyle linked to a lengthy article by William Crookes titled "Notes of Séances with D.D. Home." I've now had a chance to read this fascinating document, and I'd like to excerpt some of the more interesting material. 

What I've done is to classify the various occurrences under different headings. This may give a better sense of the variety of phenomena that were observed. Please note that each quoted paragraph exists in isolation from the ones before and after.  In order to see each event in context, you'll have to read the original document. 

As Crookes notes, not all of the phenomena were necessarily impressive or particularly evidential: 

Many incidents, – as slight movements of the table, etc., – were obviously and easily producible by Home's hands or feet. Such movements, etc., I have recorded, – not as in themselves proving anything strange, – but simply as forming part of a series of phenomena, some of which do prove, to my mind, the operation of that "new force" in whose existence I still firmly believe.

He goes on to say that these "petty details" make the notes "tedious to read," but he was not interested in sensationalism. Insead he wanted as complete a record as possible. 


The lighting conditions varied considerably throughout the many séances, and even during individual séances as candles were lit or snuffed out. 

One candle on table, two on mantelpiece, one on side table … A wood fire, somewhat dull, in the grate.

It was now proposed to put out the candles and sit by the light coming in from the windows, which was quite sufficient to enable us to see each other, and the principal articles of furniture in the room.

Lighted sometimes by one gas burner, sometimes by salted spirit lamp, sometimes by light from street.

Lighted by means of two spirit lamps with soda flames.

During the former part of the evening the gas was lighted; during the latter part the room was illuminated by two spirit lamps.

The gas was now turned out, and three spirit lamps were lighted.

There was a good fire in the room, which, however, got low towards the end of the sitting, and a gas light was burning during the greater part of the time. When that was put out there was still light enough in the room from the fire and the street to enable us to distinguish each other, and see the objects on the table.


Crookes affixed a spring balance to his dining room table by means of a hook, and then measured the weight of the table in response to commands such as "Be light" or "Be heavy." Significant variations in weight were recorded. At times the table levitated. 

Whilst this was going on, each person's hands were noticed. They were touching the table so lightly that their aggregate downward pressure could not have been many ounces. Mr. Home once lifted his hands for a moment quite off the table. His feet were tucked back under his chair the whole time.

At the same time Mr. O. R. took a candle and stooped under the table to see that no one was touching the legs of the table with their knees or feet. I also stooped down occasionally to verify Mr. O. R.’s statement that all was fair beneath.

The table now rose completely off the ground several times, whilst the gentlemen present took a candle, and kneeling down, deliberately examined the position of Mr. Home's feet and knees, and saw the three feet of the table quite off the ground. This was repeated, until each observer expressed himself satisfied that the levitation was not produced by mechanical means on the part of the medium or anyone else present.

During this experiment Mr. Home's hands were put on the table, the others being under as at first.

This time Mr. B. took a lighted candle and looked under the table to assure himself that the additional weight was not produced by anyone’s feet or otherwise.

During this time Mr. Home was sitting back in his chair, his hands quite off the table and his feet touching those on each side of him.

Mr. H now took a candle, and stooping down looked under the table to see that no one was touching it there, whilst I was observing the same at the top. Mr. Home's hands and feet were the same as before.


Various raps were heard, sometimes communicating messages via simple codes. 

Raps were heard from different parts of the table and the floor.

We heard loud raps on the table.

The raps then commenced loudly all over the room.

Afterwards at my request the Morse alphabet was given distinctly by taps on the table.


A small table frequently moved by itself. Crookes, becoming aware of its peripatetic tendencies, took pains to ensure that it was kept far away from Home and was not tampered with, but the movements continued. 

Three loud raps were immediately heard from the small sofa table about 2 feet behind Miss Douglas, and this table then slowly guided up to within 5 inches of Miss Douglas and Mr. Home … When it stopped, Mr. Home drew attention to the fact that both his feet were under his chair and all hands were on the table. He moved a little nearer to Mr. O. R. and turned his legs and feet as far away from the table as he could, asking the sitters to make themselves quite certain that he could not have produced the movement of the table. While this was being noticed, the small table moved again, this time slowly and a quarter of an inch at a time, until it was again close to Mr. Home and Miss Douglas.

The small sofa table came up to within about 6 inches of Miss Douglas. It glided along with a quick, steady movement … Just before I sat down to the séance, remembering that this table had moved up to the circle apparently of its own accord the last time we had a séance here, I pushed the table a little away from its usual place, putting it just about 2 feet behind Miss Douglas's chair. I took notice then that there was no string or anything else attached to it. After I had so placed it no one else went near it, so that its movement on this occasion was entirely beyond suspicion.

Just before sitting down, remembering that the table had been moved on the last occasion, I went to it and pushed it into the furthest corner of the room.

The table was now heard to be moving, and it was seen to glide slowly up to the side of Miss Douglas ... about 3 feet.

The small table which had already moved up to Miss Douglas ... had traveled right across the room, a distance of 9 feet, and, thumping against the door, had produced a noise we had all heard.


The "spirits" — if such they were — interacted with the sitters in various ways. Some sitters claimed to see spirit hands (Mrs. William Crookes was especially prone to seeing them, which could mean either that she was unusually psychic or that she was unusually suggestible), while others saw only a vague luminescence. 

The sleeve of Miss Douglas’s dress was pulled up and down several times in full view of all present.

Miss Douglas's chair moved partly round. On attempting to replace it as before she said she could not move it, as it was firmly fixed to the floor. I attempted to pull it along, but it resisted all my efforts.

Her [i.e., Mrs. William Crookes's] chair was tilted up till she was jammed between the back of the chair at the table we were sitting round, and her chair resisted all efforts to press it down.

We then heard a rustling noise on a heliotrope which was growing in a flower-pot standing on the table between Mr. Home and Mrs. William Crookes. On looking round Mrs. William Crookes saw what appeared to be a luminous cloud on the plant. (Mr. Home said it was a hand.) We then heard the crackling as of a sprig being broken off, and then a message came: – “Four [sic] Ellen." ... Immediately the white luminous cloud was seen to travel from the heliotrope to Mrs. William Crookes's hand, and a small sprig of the plant was put into it.  

Miss Douglas cried out, “Oh! Oh! How very curious! I have had something carried around my neck. It is now put into my hand. It is a piece of heath.”

The accordion played, and we then saw something white move from the chair close to Miss Douglas, pass behind her and Mr. Home, and come into the circle between him and Mrs. William Crookes. It floated about for half a minute, keeping a foot off the table … We then saw that the floating object had been a china card plate with cards in it, which had previously been on the table behind Miss Douglas.

The chair in which I had been sitting, which was standing near the apparatus, was seen to move up close to the table.

Whilst this was going on I held the bell under the table, and it was taken from me and rung round beneath.

I saw something white moving about in the further corner of the room (diagonal to door) under a chair … [It turned out to be handkerchief belonging to one of the ladies.] The place where I picked up the handkerchief was 15 feet from where she had been sitting.

A flower was then seen to be carried deliberately [through the air] and given to Mrs. Wr. Crookes. [Not to be confused with Mrs. William Crookes.]


For a description of the accordion experiments, see this post. It is interesting to note the variety of tunes and sounds produced by the accordion—very difficult to explain if a music box was somehow used. (For additional and insuperable problems with the music box theory, see the comments thread of the post linked immediately above.) 

Whilst it was playing in Mr. Home's hand (his other hand being quietly on the table) the other gentlemen looked under the table to see what was going on. I took particular notice that, when the instrument was playing, Mr. Home held it lightly at the end opposite the keys, that Mr. Home’s feet had boots on and were both quiet and at some distance from the instrument, and that, although the keyed end was rising and falling vigorously and the keys moving as the music required, no hand, strings, wires, or anything else could be seen touching that end.

Mr. Home then moved his hand away and the instrument continued playing for a short time in Mr. O. R.’s hands, both of Mr. Home’s hands being then above the table.

Each of the gentlemen in turn looked at the accordion under the table while it was playing.

Mr. A. R. Wallace then asked for “Home, Sweet Home."

Mr. Home had one hand on the table and was holding the top end of the accordion, whilst Mr. A. R. Wallace saw [a ghostly]  hand at the bottom end where the keys were.

It would be impossible to give any idea of the beauty of the music, or its expressive character. During the part typifying summer we had a beautiful accompaniment, the chirping and singing of the birds being heard along with the accordion. During autumn, we had “The Last Rose of Summer" played.

Mr. Home then put the accordion on the floor, and placed both his hands on the table. In a short time we all heard the movement of the accordion under the table, and accordingly Mr. Home placed one hand in Mrs. William Crookes's hands, the other in Mrs. Wr. Crookes's hands, and placed both his feet beneath my feet. In this manner it was physically impossible for him to touch the accordion with hands or feet. The lamp also gave plenty of light to allow all present seeing any movement on his part. The accordion now commenced to sound, and then played several notes and bars.

Mr. Home brought the accordion over the top of the table and held it opposite to Dr. Bird. We then all saw it contracting and expanding vigorously, and heard it emitting sounds, Mr. Home part of this time supporting the instrument on his little finger tip by means of a string I had tied around the handle.

We then were favored with the most beautiful piece of music I ever heard. It was very solemn and was executed perfectly: the “fingering” of the notes was finer than anything I could imagine. During this piece, which lasted for about 10 minutes, we heard a man’s rich voice accompanying it in one corner of the room, and a bird whistling and chirping. [Later the "man's voice" was determined to be something else; see below.] 

Whilst it played Mrs. I. looked beneath and saw it playing. Mr. Home moved his hand altogether from it and held both hands above the table. During this Mrs. I. said she saw a luminous hand playing the accordion.

The accordion, which had been left by Mr. Home under the table, now began to play and move about without anyone touching it. It dropped onto my foot, then dragged itself away, playing all the time, and went to Mrs. I. It got on to her knees.

Mr. Home got up and stood behind in full view of all, holding the accordion out at arm's length. We all saw it expanding and contracting and heard it playing a melody. Mr. Home then let go of the accordion, which went behind his back and there continued to play; his feet being visible and also his hands, which were in front of him.

The accordion was both seen and heard to move about behind him without his hands touching it. It then played a tune without contact and floating in the air.

We then saw the accordion expand and contract and heard a tune played. Mrs. William Crookes and Mr. Home saw a light on the lower part of the accordion, where the keys were, and we then heard and saw the keys clicked and depressed one after the other fairly and deliberately, as if to show us that the power doing it, although invisible (or nearly so) to us, had full control over the instrument.

A beautiful tune was then played whilst Mr. Home was standing up holding the accordion out in full view of everyone [i.e., holding it by the end, in such a way that he could not play it].

[The accordion was given to Crookes himself.] In this position, no one touching the accordion but myself, and every one noticing what was taking place, the instrument played notes but no tune.

Sounds were heard on the accordion, which was on the floor, not held by Mr. Home.

The sound as of a drum was heard on the accordion.

Mr. Home then brought [the accordion] from under the table …, playing all the time, and at last held it hanging down at the back of his chair in a very constrained attitude, his feet being under the table and his other hand on the table. In this position the instrument played chords and separate notes, but not any definite tune.

There was a sound as of a man's bass voice accompanying it. On mentioning this, one note, “No," was given, and the musical bar repeated several times slowly, till we found out that it was caused by a peculiar discord played on the base note. [This apparently also applies to the "man's voice" heard earlier.]

Mr. Home took the accordion, and it played “Auld Lang Syne."


Home was best known for his purported ability to rise into the air at will and to float horizontally. 

Mr. Home’s chair then moved several times, and tilted up on two legs, whilst Mr. Home's feet were up in the air in a semi-kneeling posture, and his hands before him not touching anything.

He then said, "I'm rising, I'm rising"; when we all saw him rise from the ground slowly to a height of about 6 inches, remain there for about 10 seconds, and then slowly descend ... Mr. Wr. Crookes, who was sitting near where Mr. Home was, said that his feet were in the air. There was no stool or other thing near which could have aided him. Moreover, the movement was a smooth continuous glide upwards.

Mr. Home nearly disappeared under the table in a curious attitude, then he was (still in his chair) wheeled out from under the table still in the same attitude, his feet out in front off the ground. He was then sitting almost horizontally, his shoulders resting on his chair. He asked Mrs. Wr. Crookes to remove the chair from under him as it was not supporting him. He was then seen to be sitting in the air supported by nothing visible. Then Mr. Home rested the extreme top of his head on the chair, and his feet on the sofa. He said he felt supported in the middle very comfortably. The chair then moved away of its own accord, and Mr. Home rested flat over the floor behind Mrs. Wr. Crookes.


Crookes designed a simple apparatus to see if Home could move a horizontal board while touching it very lightly. See the full article for a diagram. At several points he moved the board while not touching it at all. 

He then got up and gently placed the fingers of his right hand in the copper vessel E, carefully avoiding coming near any other part of the apparatus. [The vessel labeled E in Crookes's diagram was not in direct contact with the board.] Mrs. William Crookes, who was sitting near the apparatus, saw the end B of the board gently descend and then rise again. On referring to the automatic register it showed that an increased tension of 10 ounces had been produced.

The gas was turned up and we sat as before. Presently the board was seen to move up and down (Mr. Home being some distance off and not touching the table, his hands being held), and the index was seen to discern 7 lbs, where the register stopped. This showed a tension of 7-5 = 2 lbs.

Mr. Home thereupon moved his chair to the extreme corner of the table and turned his feet quite away from the apparatus close to Mrs. H. Loud raps were heard on the table and then on the mahogany board, and the latter was shaken rather strongly up and down … On going to the spring balance it was seen by the register to have descended to 9 lbs, showing an increase of tension of 4 lbs.


Miscellaneous small objects were seen to move, float about, and engage in more complicated activity. A skeptic might say that Home had tied threads around them. But since his hands were not observed to move while the objects did, and it would have been impossible for him to tie threads onto the items without being noticed, this explanation seems hopeless.  

Presently the end of this lath, pointing towards Mr. William Crookes, rose up in the air to the height of about 10 inches. The other end then rose up to a height of about 5 inches, and the lath then floated about for more than a minute in this position, suspended in the air, with no visible means of support. It moved sideways and waved gently up and down, just like a piece of wood on the top of small waves of the sea. The lower end then gently sank till it touched the table and the other end then followed ... The lath began to move again, and rising up as it did at first, it waved about in a somewhat similar manner ... Mr. Home was sitting away from the table at least 3 feet from the lath all this time; he was apparently quite motionless, and his hands were tightly grasped, his right by Mrs. Wr. Crookes and his left by Mrs. William Crookes. Any movement by his feet was impossible, as, owing to the large cage being under the table, his legs were not able to be put beneath, but were visible to those on each side of him. All the others had hold of hands.

I could see that a volume (“Incidents in my Life”), which was resting on the leaves to keep them down, was gradually sliding over it in jerks about an eighth of an inch at the time. The motion was visible to all present.

The pencil was moved and lifted up two or three times, but it fell down again.

A piece of ornamental grass about 15 inches long here moved out of the bouquet, and was seen to slowly disappear just in front at the position (eight) on the plan, as if it were passing through the table … It was then told us that the grass had been passed through the division [i.e., a crack] in the table. On measuring the diameter of this division I found it to be barely 1/8 inch, and the piece of grass was far too thick to enable me to force it through without injuring it. Yet it passed through the chink very quietly and smoothly and did not show the least signs of pressure.

The lath lifted itself up on its edge, then reared itself upon one end and fell down. It then floated up 4 inches above the table, and moved quite round the circle, pointing to Mrs. William Crookes. It then rose up and passed over our heads outside the circle.

Whilst the lath was moving around the circle, the accordion played the tune in Mr. Home's hand whilst Mrs. William Crookes's hand was also on it.

A glass water bottle which was on the table now floated up and rapped against the planchette.

The water and tumbler now rose up together, and we had answers to questions by their tapping together whilst floating in the air about 8 inches above the table, and moving backwards and forwards from one to the other of the circle.

The lath, which on its last excursion had settled in front of the further window, quite away from the circle, now moved along the floor four or five times very noisily. It then came up to Mr. T., and passed into the circle over his shoulder. It settled on the table and then rose up again.

The lath then went to the water bottle and pushed it several times nearly over, to move it away from the opening in the table. The lath then went endways down the opening.

The lath moved up through the opening in the table and answered “Yes" and “No" to questions, by bobbing up and down three times or once.

One of the glass flower troughs was seen to move along by jerks, till it had traveled about 2 inches

The wooden lath now rose from the table and rested one end on my knuckles, the other end being on the table. It then rose up and tapped me several times. 

I've omitted an experiment in direct writing, some tests done with a device called a phonautograph (which I don't quite understand), and Home's ability to handle hot coals, as well as most of the spirit messages received by raps.

In conclusion, I'd like to point out that these experiments with Home are only a small piece of the evidence for physical mediumship (or psychokinesis, or however we choose to interpret it). The Home-Crookes sittings are certainly of interest in their own right, but for me, their greatest fascination lies in the attempts by capital-s Skeptics to discredit Home without even attempting to deal with the range, variety, and complexity of the phenomena described.

Remember that James Randi at one point opined that the accordion music could have been simulated by a harmonica concealed in Home's mouth. Reread the accordion section above and ask yourself if this was ever a remotely plausible explanation. Did Randi even read the original documentation or was he relying on an inaccurate and sketchy summary?

More generally, how many Skeptics have really engaged with the parapsychological evidence? How reliable are their explanations? Can any of them offer a plausible (not ridiculously far-fetched) account of experiments such as these without insinuating that the experimenters were liars or halfwits? 

Categories: Fortean

We interrupt this broadcast for a commercial message ...

Michael Prescott - Tue, 03/11/2015 - 9:48pm

I don't normally use this blog to advertise my books, but all is fair in the increasingly cutthroat world of indie ebook publishing. 

So ... here's my latest thriller, the third in a series featuring small-town PI and part-time assassin Bonnie Parker (named after the distaff half of Bonnie & Clyde). 

When a Russian mafia kingpin takes an unwanted interest in Bonnie's work, she finds herself in the fight of her life. Luckily, only the good die young—and Bonnie is bad to the bone.

Bad to the Bone is available in Kindle, Nook, iTunes, and Kobo editions, as well as other digital formats. A trade paperback will follow shortly. 

We now return to our regularly scheduled paranormal programming ... 

Categories: Fortean

Fatal vision

Michael Prescott - Wed, 28/10/2015 - 9:16pm

New research on deathbed visions has been published by a Buffalo, NY, college. 

In interviews with 66 dying patients, the investigators found that near-death dreams and visions don’t resemble typical dreams and are distinctive from the hallucinations or confusion associated with medications, dementia or illness.

Nearly 90 percent of the patients in the studies reported having at least one near-death dream or vision, and 99 percent of those believed the dreams or visions to be real. About 50 percent of the experiences occurred while the person slept, 16 percent while they were awake, and the rest while both asleep and awake. ... Religious content was minimal, but there was a common existential thread. ...

Previous studies suggest that as many as 60 percent of conscious dying patients experience end-of-life dreams and visions, but the actual number likely is higher because the phenomenon is considered underreported by patients and family members for fear of embarrassment.

Although the study is touted as the "first rigorous examination" of deathbed visions, I don't think this is accurate. Osis and Haraldsson's classic study At the Hour of Death preceded it by decades.

Despite some talk of the importance of opening up to spirituality in hospice care, the study seems to take it for granted that these visions are "dreams" whose only function is to comfort the patient as he or she expires. 

“It’s a built-in mechanism for soothing a dying patient,” said Dr. Christopher Kerr, chief medical officer at Hospice Buffalo.

Be that as it may, the fact that the phenomenon is getting more attention can only be a good thing.

Categories: Fortean

The Season for Ghosts

Paranormalia - Sun, 25/10/2015 - 7:27pm
By chance, back in September, I found myself watching the second Republican presidential candidates’ debate, and had nightmares for a week, so Halloween came early for me. But now here it is for real, and I’m on the lookout for ghost stories in the...
Categories: Fortean