Slade, Henry

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Controversial American medium Henry Slade, whose phenomena had skeptics and believers bitterly divided both in America and Britain. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Slade, Henry (d. 1905)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Henry Slade was an America medium known best for his slate writing. He held slate writing séances for fifteen years. His phenomena divided skeptics and believers. British psychical researcher Frank Podmore was very impressed by what he read of Slade. Then, in 1876, Slade visited Britain en route for Russia. He had been invited to St. Petersburg to demonstrate before the investigators of the Imperial University, at the instigation of the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, and had been especially selected by Mme. Helena Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Slade arrived in England on July 13, 1876, and stayed for six weeks, but his visit was brought to an abrupt end.

At his lodging in Russell Square, London, Slade produced his usual slate writing phenomena together with partial materializations and some psychokinesis. A table was moved and Slade himself was levitated. J. Enmore Jones, Editor of Spiritual Magazine, reported, “We have no hesitation in saying that Dr. Slade is the most remarkable medium of modern times.” The magazine (under different editorship) later said that Slade had filled the place left by Daniel Dunglas Home. William Stainton Moses said that Slade “satisfied my desires entirely … I have seen all these phenomena and many others several times before, but I never saw them occur rapidly and consecutively in broad daylight.” Lord Rayleigh had a professional magician accompany him to a séance, but the man was unable to offer any explanation as to how Slade might be doing what he did. Lord Rayleigh then went on to convince Alfred Russel Wallace of Slade’s genuineness and even to “finally” (as Nandor Fodor put it) solve Frank Podmore’s doubts about Spiritualism.

Then, at one of Slade’s séances, Professor Ray Lankester snatched the slate from the medium’s hands and found that a message was already written on it. Slade gave an explanation for this but Lankester pressed charges against Slade for taking money under false pretenses. At the Bow Street Police Court on October 1, 1876, Slade was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labor. Due to a technicality, the conviction was quashed and, before a fresh summons could be issued, Slade fled the country. It is not known whether or not Podmore witnessed any of Slade’s sittings, or any of the trial, but the revelation of fraud had an effect on him and all his earlier doubts about mediums returned.

Professor Ray Lankester apparently had an axe to grind in that he had been out-voted as a member of the selecting Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science when Professor William Fletcher Barrett’s paper on Spiritualism was admitted. At that time, Lankester said, “The discussions of the British Association have been degraded by the introduction of Spiritualism.” Lankester’s attack on Slade was intended to strike a blow at the new phenomena and he proceeded with his charges despite Slade’s offered explanations. Podmore summed up the feelings of many when he stated, “The Spiritualists were perhaps justified in not accepting the incident as conclusive. Slade defended himself by asserting that, immediately before the slate was snatched from his hand, he heard the spirit writing, and had said so, but that his words were lost in the confusion which followed. If we grant that Slade’s testimony was as good as Professor Lankester’s or Dr. Donkin’s it was difficult summarily to dismiss this plea.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle commented that the professor “was entirely without experience in psychic research, or he would have known that it is impossible to say at what moment writing occurs in such séances.”

From the safety of Prague, Slade offered Lankester exhaustive private tests, but received no answer. With positive testimonies from many prominent Spiritualists, Slade went on to demonstrate for several months in The Hague, Berlin,and Denmark. In Berlin, after two or three sittings, the famous conjurer Samuel Bellachini testified on oath to Slade’s powers. In December, 1877, experiments were conducted in Leipzig by professors Zöllner, Fechner, Scheiber and Weber, where writing was produced on sealed slates under the strictest test conditions, knots were tied on an endless string, and there were displays of force and penetration of matter through matter.

Later in Slade’s career there were several charges of fraud. Fodor points out that the writing obtained on the slates “was generally of two kinds. The general messages were very legible and clearly punctuated, but when the communication came in answer to questions it was clumsy, scarcely legible, abrupt and vague. It bore traces of hasty work under difficult conditions as these impromptu messages could not be prepared in advance.” More and more frequently Slade began to be caught out in fraud. He had, according to Fodor, fallen “victim to the drink habit” and what little genuine power he might have had seemed to have left him. He died penniless in a Michigan sanitorium in 1905, sent there by the American Spiritualists.

Sources:

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: The History of Spiritualism. New York: Doran, 1926
Fodor, Nandor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press, 1933 Spence, Lewis: An Encyclopedia of the Occult. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1920
Slate Writing see Writing, Slate