October 30, 2018
At this time of year people may be wary of things that go bump in the night. With Halloween, the following All Souls Day, and the celebration of Dia de Muertos, we seem just a bit closer to the Dearly Departed. Of course, here at the Wellesley Historical Society, we are always closer to the spirits of the past. Some of our collections even document 19th century experiments to contact eras long gone, attempts to reach out to spirits from past eras… and even other planets.
Wellesley was home to two of the most prominent practitioners of spiritualism in the country at that time, William Denton (1823-1883), and his wife Elizabeth Melissa Foote Denton (1826-1916). William argued that there was “a wide realm lying between the known physical and the comparatively unknown spiritual, -- a realm as yet almost entirely unexplored” (Denton, iii). The Dentons felt these connections, between the physical and spiritual worlds, needed to be explored. William took spiritualism to another level, attempting to demonstrate that it had a scientific basis; he believed that ancient objects and artifacts could be used to communicate with ancient peoples and connect with ancient places, and that these observations could be scientifically studied and recorded. This “science” was Psychometry, and those who acted as mediums were called “psychometers.”
The Wellesley Historical Society archives hold the Denton Family Papers, a veritable treasure-trove for those interested in this fascinating pseudo-science. Denton was by profession a geologist, lecturing far and wide in the United States and Canada; he worked with mining companies, government agencies, and engineers, lending his expertise to their business ventures. Denton, however, had interests beyond just pure science. From the 1850s until his death in 1883, Denton published extensively on science, religion, spiritualism, and psychometry; for him, all these disciplines were connected.
How did psychometry work? In his The Soul of Things, he notes that “the specimen to be examined was generally placed upon the forehead, and held there during the examination; but this was not absolutely necessary, some psychometers being able to see when holding a specimen in the hand” (36). In his published works, his psychometers were his wife Elizabeth, or sisters, Elizabeth Denton Seybold and Anna Denton Cridge; he occasionally used a spiritualist medium while traveling on his lecture tours. His unpublished notebooks and journals, in the Society’s collections, reveal that it was a family affair, with his children often participating.
William wanted to demonstrate that natural objects, like rocks, acted like a photographic plate, with impressions recorded over long expanses of time. He asks, “Why could rocks not receive impressions of surrounding objects, some of which have been in the immediate neighborhood for years, and why could they not communicate these in a similar manner to sensitive persons, thus giving us the clue to the conditions of the earth and its inhabitants during the vast eras of the past?” (Denton, 36).
“Impressions” on these artifacts acted like a series of pictures. The descriptions of these impressions read like motion pictures, long before that technology had been developed. Psychometers had the ability to “behold pictures connected with the history of those specimens and perceive sensations that have been treasured up in them” (Denton, 255). While the psychometer was engaged with the artifact, William would write down the impressions, often illustrating them with drawings of what was “seen.”
In the collections we have rocks, fossils, and other artifacts that William Denton collected for research purposes. But they were also used for psychometric experiments; their value went beyond just being geological specimens. The Wellesley Historical Society holdings include William and Elizabeth’s journals, book manuscripts, lecture notes, correspondence on psychometry, as well as hundreds of artifacts used in their experiments.
Much of the Denton’s psychometric research is a reflection of the context in which they lived, a time of increased industrial and scientific progress, a time in which religious doctrines and values were being questioned. The scientific and the spiritual were diverging, and many, like the Dentons, sought to find a common foundation for both.
As we approach the Halloween season, remember the Dentons. Pick up an ancient stone, or an old object, and see what you can glean from it. You may find the veil separating the remote past from the present is thinner than you think.
The reprocessing of the Wellesley Historical Society Denton Family Papers has been made possible by support from Mass Humanities, whose grants inspire considered thought, conversation, and action through the humanities. The Wellesley Historical Society is happy to participate in their mission to improve civic life in Massachusetts. See more about what Mass Humanities does here: http://masshumanities.org/. Explore the Wellesley Historical Society on the web: http://www.wellesleyhistoricalsociety.org.
Quotes from: Denton, William and Elizabeth M. Foote Denton. 1888. The Soul of Things; or Psychometric Researches and Discoveries. Wellesley, Massachusetts: Denton Publishing Company. 8th edition, revised. Originally published 1863.