Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked with the Dead
ESP and Hypnosis
Modern Spiritualism began in 1848 in Hydesville, New York, when the Fox sisters discovered they could produce spirit raps by cracking their toe joints. The movement grew rapidly, peaking in the Reconstruction period and spreading to England, where it won such distinguished converts as Conan Doyle, Oliver Lodge, and William Crookes. Ten years ago it had reached such a low ebb in the United States that it was almost impossible to find a medium willing to produce physical phenomena unless you went to a Spritualist camp such as Lily Dale, in upstate New York.
Then suddenly, in 1967, Spiritualism began a comeback. It was, of course, part of the big Occult Explosion, but the strongest shove came from three men: the late Bishop James Pike, the later Reverend Arthur Ford, and Allen Spraggett, a Canadian fundamentalist preacher turned occult journalist.
To appreciate the significance of Spraggett’s latest book, Arthur Ford, it is necessary to give a quick sketch of Pike’s sad, discombobulated life. After two years of study for the Roman Catholic priesthood, he lost his faith and dropped out of training to become a lawyer. He worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission, remarried (his first marriage had been annulled), regained his faith, and was ordained an Episcopalian priest. From a church in Poughkeepsie he moved to Columbia University, where he headed the department of religion until he became dean of that monstrous edifice near Columbia, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In 1958 he was made Bishop of California.
Back came the old doctrinal doubts, all proclaimed with great public fanfare. The Virgin Birth and the Trinity were the first to go. Then the Incarnation. Pike joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He entered Jungian analysis. When Spraggett first met him in 1963 (Pike was fifty) his impression was that of a man “incredibly old…either on the verge of utter exhaustion or afflicted with a terminal disease.” In 1966 James, Jr., eldest of his four children, shot and killed himself at the age of twenty-two. Pike quit the ministry to join Robert Hutchins’s Center for Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara.
Like thousands of today’s Protestant ministers, thirsting for signs, Pike grew increasingly obsessed with parapsychology. Although he no longer called himself a Christian (the church, he declared, was “sick and dying”), he retained a firm belief in God, the spiritual resurrection of Jesus, and life after death. Consumed with guilt over his son’s suicide, he longed for hard evidence that Jim was happy on the Other Side.
He found it. Two weeks after his son’s death, a series of poltergeist events took place in the apartment in Cambridge, England, where he was then living. He found that books had been mysteriously moved. A shaving mirror slid off the shelf. Milk soured. An alarm clock stopped at 8:19, the London hour when Jim might have killed himself in New York. He found safety pins open at the angle clock hands have at 8:19.
Convinced that Jim was trying to reach him, Pike sought the help of a London medium, Ena Twigg. In two séances with Mrs. Twigg, and several later ones with George Daisley, a London medium who had settled in Santa Barbara, Pike spoke to his discarnate son. His account of these séances, in his book The Other Side, was a Daisley bonanza. The medium moved from a tiny abode to a $70,000 house, now the headquarters of his Hallowed Grounds Fellowship for Spiritual Healing and Prayer. Last year his fee for a sitting was $30, and there was a six-month waiting list.
In 1967 Pike had his most dramatic encounter with Jim. At Lily Dale, Spraggett had met Arthur Ford, an almost forgotten American medium, and had been overwhelmed by Ford’s clairvoyant powers. Why not bring Pike and Ford together for a séance and televise it? The sitting was videotaped in Toronto on September 3. Two weeks later, a half-hour portion of the two-hour session was shown on Canadian prime time. It was the biggest psychic news story since Bridey Murphy.
Compared to the great mediums of the past, with their jangling tambourines, floating trumpets, and glowing ectoplasm, Ford put on a dull performance. As was his custom, he covered his eyes with a black silk cloth, fell into a trance, and was immediately taken over by Fletcher, his spirit control since 1924. After introducing several discarnate churchmen Pike had known, Fletcher presented a “boy” who turned out to be Jim. “This boy,” said Fletcher, “…wants you to understand that you, nor any other member of your family, have any right to feel that you failed him in any way.”
Pike was deeply moved. “Thank you, Jim,” he said. Three months later he had a private séance with Ford that moved him even more. In The Other Side he goes into detail about its “evidential” material. The ESP theory (so dear to parapsychologists who cannot buy the spirit world) that Ford was picking Pike’s mind is ruled out; too much evidential data was unknown to Pike himself at the time.
In 1968, divorced from his second wife, Pike married Diane Kennedy, his secretary who had helped him write The Other Side. The following year, when he and Diane were touring the Holy Land, they became lost in the Dead Sea desert and Pike died of a fall while Diane was seeking help. Spraggett lost no time dashing off The Bishop Pike Story (1970). Diane lost no time dashing off Search (1970), her account of Pike’s death in the wilderness.
Ford died in Miami on January 4, 1971. On the day of his death, his spirit instantly began dictating a book on the afterlife to Ruth Montgomery. It was published later in the year as A World Beyond. Ford had willed his papers to William V. Rauscher, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Woodbury, New Jersey, a convinced Spiritualist and long-time friend. Rauscher delivered Ford’s funeral eulogy. He proposed to Spraggett that the two collaborate on what the book’s jacket calls the “authoritative biography of the world’s greatest medium.”
World’s greatest? Perhaps Ford was the best-known native medium of recent decades, but modern mediums are a scrubby lot compared to the earlier giants. One thinks of the Davenport brothers, with their marvelous stage show; Daniel Dunglas Home, who floated out one window and back through another; Eusapia Palladino, the fat little Italian lady who hoisted heavy tables; Henry Slade, the slate writer; Margery, the “blonde witch of Boston”; and scores of others. Those were mediums who really did things!
Ford’s dreary history begins with his birth in 1897 at Titusville, Florida. At seventeen he was studying to be a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, at their Transylvania (shades of Count Dracula!) College, Lexington, Kentucky. He dropped out to enlist in the army. In his autobiography, Nothing So Strange, and his later book of memoirs, Unknown but Known, Ford said flatly that he never got overseas, but Spraggett cites four published interviews in which Ford spoke of his psychic experiences in the French trenches. (Ford later claimed to have had a son who died in World War II, but Spraggett and Rauscher, unable to find evidence that Ford even had a son, say nothing about this in their book.) After the war, Ford returned to Lexington, became ordained, but soon gave up his church to become a professional medium. It was in New York, 1924, that Fletcher became his lifelong control.
Spraggett does not conceal the fact that Ford gave conflicting accounts of who Fletcher was. In Nothing So Strange Ford said that Fletcher was a French Canadian he had met when they were both five, but had not seen since. The Canadian had been killed in the First World War. In 1928, in a psychic magazine, Ford gave a different story. He and Fletcher had been college chums. In another magazine article he called Fletcher “a Canadian chap with whom I went to school and college.” Throughout his life Ford kept on the wall a framed photograph of Fletcher. The picture, that of a handsome youth with dark wavy hair, is reproduced in Spraggett’s book.
A former male secretary of Ford’s (Spraggett describes him as “middle-aged” and “effeminate”) told Spraggett that Ford’s trances were a put-on, and Fletcher a “pure invention.” The photo of Fletcher, he said, “just happened along. It could have been anybody—a very, very good friend that Ford had many years ago, you know what I mean?” (The book has many of these sly, almost snickering hints about the homosexuality of Ford and others.)
Although prominent in Spiritualist circles during the Twenties, Ford was little known to the general public until 1928 when he became embroiled in a crazy controversy. The story is told in the final chapters of two biographies of Harry Houdini (by William Gresham and Milbourne Christopher), but in telling it again Spraggett has added interesting new details.
When Houdini died in 1926, his wife, Bess, announced that her husband had given her a secret message. Bess offered ten thousand dollars to any medium who could reveal it. After receiving thousands of incorrect guesses, she withdrew the offer.
In 1928, during a séance in Ford’s apartment, Fletcher told Bess that Houdini’s mother had asked him to give her the word “forgive.” Bess was staggered. This was not the Houdini message, but it was a code word on which Houdini and his mother had agreed. No living person except herself, she told the press, knew that word. Alas, it was soon disclosed (by Conan Doyle, no less!) that a year earlier Bess had told a Brooklyn Eagle reporter all about “forgive.” Doyle hastened to add that he did not believe Ford knew this! Still, the fact that the word had been published and Bess apparently had forgotten about it weakened the evidential value of Fletcher’s disclosure.
Fletcher tried again. This time, speaking through Ford’s lips in a series of eight sittings (none with Bess), he located Houdini himself. The message was “Rosabelle, believe.” Bess requested a private sitting. In her apartment on January 7, 1929, Fletcher repeated the message. Bess signed a statement that it was correct.
On January 10 the New York Evening Graphic, a lurid tabloid, ran banner heads calling the revelation a hoax. Rea Jaure, a Graphic reporter, said Ford had told her that he and Bess had cooked up the whole thing to publicize a lecture tour the two of them had planned. Ford and Bess denied it. Walter Winchell published Mrs. Houdini’s long, tearful letter defending herself and Ford. Joseph Dunninger (later to become a well-known television mentalist) got into the act. He declared that Houdini had been intimate with a red-headed magician’s assistant, Daisy White, who knew the secret message and had passed it on to Ford. (Dunninger recently rehashed his version of the affair in Fate, November, 1971.) Bess never denied that Ford’s message was correct, but in later years she insisted she had never received a spirit communication from her husband. My own opinion is that Bess, ill and drinking heavily in 1928, had blabbed the secret but was never able later to admit it.
From Houdini’s peak to Pike’s peak, Ford’s career was undistinguished. He traveled about the world, lecturing to believers, giving public readings and private séances for the famous and not so famous. He lived for a time in Hollywood—a “lovely, mad city,” he called it. He became an alcoholic. Just before his second divorce he got blind drunk in California, blacked out, and woke up in Florida. He joined AA. He popped pills. Fearful of the dark, he always slept with a light on.
Spraggett and Rauscher did not see all of Ford’s papers because a secretary, on Ford’s instructions, had destroyed an unknown amount. But there were piles of letters, diaries, and scrapbooks to go through. In checking this material Spraggett and Rauscher made a horrifying discovery.
Ford had thoroughly researched Pike in advance of the televised séance. During the sitting, Fletcher had introduced the Right Reverend Karl Morgan Block, Pike’s predecessor as Bishop of California. (Fletcher: “The name is like Black, or something…. Charl…, Carl, Black, Block….”) Block mentioned several facts so obscure that Pike was certain no amount of research could have turned them up. But there among Ford’s papers was a clipping—an obit on Block from The New York Times—containing just those facts. And there were other obits on other discarnates who had, through Fletcher, impressed Pike with their evidential data.
Shocked and outraged, Spraggett and Rauscher dug deeper. Ford kept obits on thousands. His file on Pike went back for years. There was a fragment from a destroyed notebook containing typed data on clients. There were handwritten notes from a psychic researcher and friend giving Ford facts about members of a church where the medium had been booked for a clairvoyant demonstration. There was Ford’s note a week later: “Thanks for all you did for me…. You are forever putting me in your debt.”
One of Ford’s many male secretaries told Spraggett that Ford
…never went to a thing like the Pike sitting without untold research. He did the research himself. He showed me how to do it. He went to the library in Philadelphia…. School records, see?… One woman sent him five hundred dollars in advance for a sitting. I was with him when he did the research….
One day I said to Arthur, “Are you reading your poems?…” That was the code name for his notes…. He kept his poems up to date by reading the papers constantly and cutting out obituaries from all over the United States.
He carried these poems of his in a gladstone suitcase and we’d hide it under the front seat of my car.
Do these disclosures, so common in the history of Spiritualism, shake the confidence of Spraggett and Rauscher in Ford? Not a bit. It only makes Ford seem to them more enigmatic. They conclude that he was “a genuinely gifted psychic who, for various reasons, scrutable and inscrutable, fell back on trickery when he had to.” When he had to? The implication (it’s a hoary one) is that clients force mediums to cheat by their incessant demands for evidential information.
The book does, however, have a villain, and you’d never guess who. It is the television entertainer Kreskin! The authors are apoplectic with indignation over this “late-adolescent” and “poor-man’s Dunninger” for posing as a “sensitive” when all he does is magic tricks. It misleads the public. It casts doubt, you see, on genuine clairvoyants like Ford.
One of the strongest reasons for believing that mediums do not talk with the dead has always been that they never report the dead as saying anything much. Surely, if there is life beyond the grave, and God permits contacts with the Other Side, the dead do not become half-witted. Yet all they can say is that they are happy, that everything is peaceful and filled with light, and so on. They spout kindergarten metaphysics. As Spraggett reminds his readers, spirit controls are notoriously undecided about even so simple a question as reincarnation. And who should know better than they? Nor do they agree about the nature of Christ. Indeed, they don’t agree about anything.
When Ford made a sensational platform appearance in London, after being introduced by Doyle, here are some of the marvelous messages he brought to those in the audience from departed loved ones. “They send greetings and love.” “She says hold on and all will be well.” “Yes, he [a dead child] is growing up nicely. He wanted to tell you so. And do not worry about your mother. She will be all right. I give you that.”
Can anyone in his senses suppose that the dead would speak to the living in such puerile phrases? Perhaps one reason Spraggett is silent about the art of “cold reading”—the art of letting a listener unconsciously tell you, by his reactions, what to say next—is that Ford was never very good at it. I’ve heard palmists in carnival “mitt camps” who gave better readings.
The truth is that Ford was a mediocre mountebank. He would be forgotten today if it hadn’t been for Bess Houdini and for his luck in catching poor Pike at a time of severe mental anguish. There is no deep mystery about Ford. He is easier to understand than Spraggett and Rauscher.
Susy Smith’s ESP and Hypnosis, her twenty-first book on parapsychology, is a hodgepodge of anecdotes lifted from books by other occult writers and from such scholarly magazines as Fate, Psychic, Photoplay, Good House-keeping, and Wrestling World. Sample: A chapter on “Age Regression” reports on the ability of hypnotized persons to remember previous lives. The author admits that it is not easy to decide whether this proves reincarnation, retrocognition (supernormal knowledge of the past), or the influence of departed spirits.
Again: A young Lapp girl, under hypnosis, recites the exact paragraph her father is then reading in a newspaper in her home several miles away. “An interesting sequel to this occurred shortly after the test,” Susy Smith reveals. “Her parents telephoned, frightened because her apparition had just appeared to them!”
And if we don’t watch out, the Russians will get way ahead of us. The late Leonid Vasiliev, a Soviet variant on our Dr. Rhine, found that a hypnotist in Leningrad could, by telepathy, put a lady to sleep in Sevastopol. Could the hypnotist be sending out electromagnetic waves? No, because when he was inside a lead cabinet he could still knock out his subject by taking thought.
And so on. Like all of Susy Smith’s books, this one reads as if it had been collected and written in two weeks. It costs $6.95. Soon it will be in paperback. Macmillan can’t lose.
A Spirited Exchange November 1, 1973