1869 Planchette or the Despair of Science by Epes Sargent

Epes Sargent (1813–1880) was a journalist and Washington correspondent in 1831. He was friends with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. He composed textbooks, plays, and biographies. In 1847 he became the editor of The Boston Evening Transcript. He authored three books on Spiritualism: Planchette, or the Despair of Science (1869), The Proof Palpable of Immortality (1875), and The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism (1880). He was convinced that Spiritualism provided proof of the afterlife and that the planchette in particular was the “despair of science,” or those dogmatically clinging to a materialist world view.

Epes Sargent

Epes Sargent

In the opening paragraphs of Planchette, Sargent said, “The future historian of the marvelous cannot well avoid some mention of the planchette or “little plank.” For his benefit, we will remark that the year 1868 witnessed the appearance of the planchette, in great numbers, in the bookseller’s shops of the United States.

“Why so sudden a demand for it should have sprung up, nobody could explain. Planchette was nothing new. For twelve or fifteen years it had been common in France, where it received its name. It was simply an improvement on some ruder instrument that had been in use among the original American investigators, of the year 1848, into the rapping and table-tipping phenomena.

“The planchette is a little heart-shaped table with three legs, one of which is a pointed lead-pencil, that can be slipped in and out of a socket, and by means of which marks can be made on paper. The other two legs have casters attached, which can be easily moved in any direction. The size of this table is usually about seven inches long and five wide. At the apex of the heart is the socket, lined with rubber, through which the pencil is thrust.

“Not improbably, some future antiquarian will discover that this mystic toy was in use long before the days of Pythagoras. The phenomenon of the tipping tables was known twenty centuries ago.

“The form of the planchette is of little consequence, and may be regulated by the caprice of the manufacturer. The instrument is made light, so that the slightest application will move it. As for the insulated casters and other “patent” contrivances, they are of no account, except to give novelty to an advertisement.

“When the modern rapping phenomena began to be investigated, communications were received by the tedious process of calling over the alphabet, and noting down the letters at which the rap was given. Then, when the movements of tables took place, it was suggested that by arranging a pencil at the foot of a light table, and placing a sheet of paper under it, the intelligent force that was operating might produce written sentences.

“The device was tried, and found successful. The table, once set in motion by the passive influence of a medium, began to trace characters, then words and sentences. This method was finally simplified by substituting little tables, the size of a hand; then small baskets, pasteboard boxes, and finally the flat piece of wood, running on little wheels, and called Planchette.
“Here we have the genealogy of the planchette. It is, you see, the direct offspring of the tipping table. The phenomena in which it is made instrumental are, for the most part, the same.

“And now, what will Planchette do?

“Place it on the smooth wood of a table, and let one person, or two or more, of a particular organization, rest the fingers on it lightly, and it will soon begin to move; and this without any conscious intent or action on the part of any individual present, as there is reason to believe. Then, by placing a sheet of white paper under the pencil, it will be found that intelligible sentences will be written out by these movements.

“There would be nothing curious in all this, were it not for the character of these sentences in many instances. Expressions wholly foreign to the mental habits of the operators will be found on the paper. Thus, the pious will be made to write profanely; and the profane will be suddenly made instrumental in the production of messages which might do credit to Madame Guyon or to Vincent de Paul. But the results are as various as the idiosyncrasies of individuals.

“Frequently, answers to mental questions will be given with a directness that leaves no doubt as to the intelligence of the operating force.

“For example: the other day an affectionate father put a mental inquiry, to which the instantaneous reply, under the hands of a child, was “A husband.” The question had been, “What does Miss Susan want?”

“The inquirer then asked what sum he had paid for repairing a certain garment, and the answer was correctly given, “Three dollars and seventy-five cents.”

“What wonder that the planchette should be getting to be a puzzle and a study to thousands of intelligent inquirers, for whom the great problems of psychology and physiology have a not irrational interest?

“It must not be supposed that the “little plank” will be equally communicative under the fingers of all. In the majority of cases it obstinately refuses to move. The failures are very numerous. Probably not more than ten out of a hundred persons in a mixed assemblage would be found, through whom the phenomena would take place; and in these hundred there might possibly be one who would prove a good medium. Such a one will soon discard the planchette as of no use, in the production of phenomena far more extraordinary than any got by its aid.”

Raps begat table tipping, table tipping begat the planchette; and the planchette married to the already existent alphabet board begat the sprit board. All were the children of modern Spiritualism.

As a culture, we, in the west, want results and we want them now. A success rate of “probably not more than ten out of a hundred,” was not very good and even though the planchette was both amazing and popular, it was clear that it needed improvement. The fertile ground that gave birth to the spirit board was prepared by the popularity of the planchette.

Much Love,

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