nthposition online magazine

Mrs Miller's gift


[ bookreviews ]

An unusual title for a CD, but Mrs Miller's Gift is a useful addition to the rather meagre published output of vintage Spiritualist audio recordings. There are three separate sections, all of historical significance: talks by Ernest Oaten and Harry Edwards, and probably of most interest, the only known recording of a séance with Helen Duncan.

Accompanying the CD is an informative booklet compiled by Gerald O'Hara. He came across a number of records while examining the archives of the Edinburgh College of Parapsychology (previously the Edinburgh Psychic College and Library) for a history of the College to celebrate its 75th anniversary. This was also published, slightly confusingly, as Mrs Miler's Gift (Saturday Night Press, 2007), Mrs Ethel Maud Miller having opened the College in 1932. Of the two series of records he discovered, the first set of three contained a séance given at the College by Helen Duncan, and the other set contained Oaten's talk. The discs were cleaned and remastered, and one of the Oaten records which had snapped was put back together for the sound to be extracted.

O'Hara provides transcripts of the recordings, which is useful, especially in the case of the Duncan séance because although the sound has been cleaned up, the quality is still rough and much of the dialogue is difficult to decipher. There is also useful background on the history of the College and a section on Helen Duncan's relationship with the institution. Details are supplied on Oaten and Edwards as well, but Duncan is clearly the star attraction.


Ernest Oaten

Now largely forgotten, Ernest Oaten was once very well-known as editor of The Two Worlds newspaper, and president at various times of both the Spiritualists' National Union and the International Spiritualist Federation. He also had the distinction of being the first Spiritualist to broadcast on the subject. My Experiences in Spiritualism went out on the BBC National Programme on Friday 13 April 1934, following a campaign by the movement for airtime. In it, Oaten describes his first sitting in 1892, at which a large walnut table weighing 84lbs floated in the air and he was given personal information concerning his grandfather. The following day he and a relative sat and again received personal information that could not have been known to either of them but which was later verified.

Since then, he claims, he has sat in more than 4,000 séances, fewer than 100 held in darkness, and has seen every type of psychic phenomenon. Of those, he estimates that about half had no relevance to spirit communication, perhaps a quarter could be attributed either to spirits or faculties such as telepathy, intuition and so on, and the rest were the result of discarnate intelligence, some of whom had materialised and been held in his arms. Most of these experiences had occurred in home circles rather than with professional mediums. After describing his beliefs about the afterlife, Oaten makes the point that he is unable to recommend mediums, as private sittings are illegal and render the medium liable to three months' hard labour. Spiritualism, he asserts, is the only denomination in the country denied religious freedom.

The transcript of the Oaten talk in the CD booklet has been taken from a pamphlet issued by The Two Worlds Publishing Company which claims to be a "verbatim report" (the text as published can also be found in the online journal Psypioneer, Vol 2, No 3, March 2006) but in fact there are numerous discrepancies, the talk as broadcast having been edited apparently for clarity, usually by deleting occasional sentences. However, an entire section of the talk, lasting two minutes, is missing from the text. Oaten speaks of social justice being necessary for the future life. In part he says:

"Spiritualism takes in the brotherhood of Man as one of its fundamentals, and thus it becomes a binding obligation and imperative duty to strive for the abolition of all things which hinder the attainment of the fullest and richest life for every man, woman and child. Unemployment, slums, disease and ignorance which hinder or delay the attainment of the full life of mutual service must be swept away both, in the interests of this world and that of the future state's. The two worlds depend upon one another."

This section is not improvised, so it is curious that it was omitted from the Two Worlds text. What is included is the transcript of a 10-minute question and answer session with an anonymous interviewer, clearly in possession of a copy of the script and with pre-prepared questions. This dialogue took place in the studio after the talk but was not recorded, so only the written text exists. Oaten's responses would appear to have been scripted too, as he oddly concludes his reply to the final question, concerning an observation made by Thomas Hobbes, with the quotation above. The implication is that he said the same thing twice, but it is unclear why it was left out of the transcript of the broadcast.


Helen Duncan

The most interesting item on the CD is the recording of a séance given at the Edinburgh College by medium Helen Duncan probably in December 1937. It also is accompanied by a transcript, though not a completely accurate one, and O'Hara has supplied a useful list of attendees, on both sides of the divide, where those individuals can be identified. These included Mrs Miller, the College founder, along with the Principal and Laura Culme-Seymour, whose daughter Marjorie died in a canoeing accident at the age of 17 in 1934. Laura later wrote a book (Marjorie, 1957) about the large number of sittings she had with various mediums, including Mrs Duncan.

As recounted in the book, her daughter's death was actually rather mysterious. Marjorie had been visiting friends in Ayrshire, and after church on the Sunday morning of 21 January 1934, as it was a nice day, she and two boys had gone out in canoes in the afternoon. The boys had wanted to visit an island to "see some birds" (presumably a euphemism for nesting) and Marjorie was to wait in her canoe for them. When the boys returned to the meeting point, according to their statement, Marjorie was not there, and they assumed that she had become bored and gone back to the house. She had not, however, so a search was initiated, and resumed on the Monday. Later that day the canoe was found washed up on the shore but in Mrs Culme-Seymour's words, " no trace of our beloved child was ever found." No blame was attached to the boys and Marjorie's death was put down to a tragic accident.

Mrs Culme-Seymour had her first séance with Mrs Duncan on 6 March 1937, though she had visited other mediums previously, and sat with her a number of times until the last one in November 1950.  The date of December 1937 for the recording has been established by O'Hara from internal evidence based on those present, and from the statement by Helen Duncan's annoying child spirit control Peggy that her birthday was "on Tuesday" and was 14 December (it sounds as though she might be saying September instead, and both dates fell on a Tuesday in 1937). O'Hara deduces that the recording took place during the week before 14 December. This seems reasonable, though Laura Culme-Seymour does not describe a séance with Mrs Duncan during either period in her book. But nor does she mention any of her séances with Mrs Duncan being recorded, so it is entirely possible that she failed to include that particular one in her account.

During the séance, Marjorie visits, as well as Albert Stewart, Helen Duncan's main guide, and little Peggy. Albert has a remarkably patrician drawl for a supposedly Dundonian pattern maker. Peggy insists on singing a song tunelessly, in the process indicating a fondness for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy by choosing 'Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life' from Naughty Marietta (1935). ‘Marjorie' speaks in a style common among actresses in 1930s British films, or possibly in the manner a working-class medium might think was appropriate for a young gel with aristocratic connections. Albert was quite happy for the recording to take place, as long as he was able to protect the medium "against any completing of a circuit" which luckily did not occur. The séance is not particularly evidential, more a conversation among friends, and rather different from the séances described in Culme-Seymour's book which she found so compelling as proof of Marjorie's survival. It is clear that it is a tight-knit group of people all well known to each other, and this would have been at least the fifth sitting Culme-Seymour had had with Duncan. Even so, the recording is of historical importance and makes fascinating listening whatever one's attitude to what is said.

There is a link between Oaten and Duncan that O'Hara does not mention. He briefly describes Duncan's appearance at Edinburgh Sheriff Court on a charge of pretending to be a medium in May 1933. On the second day of the trial, Oaten appeared as a witness. He said that of the 4,000 or so séances he had attended, 18 had been with Duncan. He was convinced he had witnessed genuine phenomena at these sittings, though he did not cover himself with glory when shown a photograph by the Fiscal of what looked like cheesecloth with "tears and selvedge". In response to the question, "Does ectoplasm have tears and selvedge?" he replied, "There is no reason why it should not." (The trial was covered in Light and the articles are reproduced in Psypioneer, Vol 4, No 8, August 2008.) Duncan was fined £10, not 10s, as O'Hara states.


Harry Edwards

The final item, by the well-known spiritual healer - Harry Edwards Speaks - makes the CD up to a reasonable length. Lasting just under 13 minutes, it is the Lyntone recording first released on a 33 1/3rpm EP, probably in 1965 (LYN 927/928). (The copy I have inspected has a list of Edwards' publications on the back of the sleeve priced in decimal currency, but presumably the details were updated as it was reprinted.) Apart from some background hiss, technically it is of good quality. 1965 was a busy year for Edwards, as he produced a study course in spiritual healing and held a "teach-in" - very counter-cultural - at Westminster Central Hall, in addition to running the Spiritual Healing Sanctuary at Burrows Lea, Shere, where the recording was made. It is a straightforward exposition of Edwards' principles, though the Greensleeves accompaniment which tops and tails the talk might not be to everybody's taste. The transcript is not necessary here because Edwards is perfectly audible, and once again there are some slight discrepancies between spoken and written word. O'Hara has wisely decided against printing the sleeve notes which begin modestly, "Harry Edwards has been described on many occasions as the greatest healer the world has seen since the time of Jesus", though surely not by Harry himself.

Mrs Miller's Gift makes a useful companion to the superb Supposé 3-CD box set Okkulte Stimmen Mediale Musik: Recordings of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007, and preserves and makes easily available important aspects of Spiritualism. Gerald O'Hara is to be applauded for rescuing the records from obscurity and presenting them in such a useful package. Hopefully more archives will be encouraged to blow the dust off their shellac collections (and even cylinders) and do likewise.