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Interview With
Vice-Admiral W. Usborne Moore
Vice-Admiral W. Usborne MooreInterviewed by Michael E. Tymn

When he wrote a small book titled The Cosmos and the Creeds, William Usborne Moore, a retired vice-admiral in the British navy, attacked the teachings of the churches and expressed doubt as to the reality of a future life. “At the time I thought that such immortality as man possessed lay in the influence his actions, words, or writings had upon those who were his contemporaries, or who came after him; but that he himself, as an individual conscious entity, disappeared forever, not to be recognized again,” he wrote eight years later in his 1911 book, Glimpses of the Next State.

Soon after the first book was published, Moore, who had 35 years in the surveying branch of navy and had command of six surveying vessels when he retired, began to have misgivings about his agnosticism, as he had not investigated sources of evidence outside the narrow confines of the churches. Once he began investigating mediums late 1904, his views changed. “To be brief, I found that the deeper I went into the study of spiritism the more apparent it became that, whether he wished it or not, man’s individuality was not extinguished at death,” Moore, who went by his middle name, explained. “I read books, visited clairvoyants, and attended séances for materialization. Through all I was constantly reminded of the existence of a near and dear relative, older than myself, who passed away thirty-seven years ago in the prime of her life. Her continued reappearances could only lead me to one conclusion: I was being guided to a reconsideration of the problem of immortality.”


Moore referred to the deceased relative as “Iola,” explaining that she herself adopted the spirit name to avoid any unpleasant complications among friends and relatives still living who were not educated in spiritism. He pointed out that his investigation into spiritism was not prompted by any desire for consolation as he had not lost anyone other than his father many years before and was certainly not grieving and wanting to believe. His desire was simply to get at the truth. Moore concluded that as a surveyor, interested in detail and exactness, he was as qualified as anyone to investigate the subject matter.

Moore explored mediumship in England and made three trips to the United States to sit with various mediums there. He experienced both physical and mental mediumship. Sitting with Joseph B. Jonson of Toledo, Ohio, he witnessed many materializations, including his father and mother. “In these there was no possibility of error,” he wrote, mentioning that his father’s characteristic “iron duke” nose stood out and that he saw him in good light. At one séance, he observed as many as 25 spirit forms emerge from the materialization cabinet and was certain that there were no trap doors of any kind in which confederates in costumes could have been admitted. They came in all sizes and shapes.

At a Jonson séance on February 1, 1909, 19 spirits manifested, 10 of them for Moore, including his father, mother, and Iola. “During this séance, I saw several spirits dematerialize,” he recorded. “Some descended into the floor slowly and, so to speak naturally. It was possible to follow their heads with the eye until the shoulders were level with the carpet. Others doubled up before they dissipated, and a few fell over on one side.”

While Moore sat with dozens of gifted mediums, Etta Wriedt of Detroit, Michigan may have been the most gifted. Moore’s third book, The Voices, published in 1913, dealt solely with her mediumship. He visited her in the United States during 1909 and 1911, and then further observed her during 1912 and 1913 when she visited England. “For my part I can only say that, in her presence, I obtained evidence of the next state of consciousness so clear and so pronounced that the slightest doubt was no longer possible,” he offered. “I left her house in February 1911 in the condition of mind of a man who no longer fosters ‘belief,’ but who knows what is his destiny when the tomb closes over him and his spirit leaves the earth plane.”

Admiral Moore, as I understand it, you were attracted to psychical research by Sir William Crookes’ book, “Researches into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism.” When did you have your first sitting with a medium?

“In September 1904, I sat in Portsmouth with Mrs. Crompton of Bradford; she clairvoyantly saw a spirit form near me that answered very nearly to Iola as I remember her, and Mr. Vango described her to me two or three times, giving her name. These were the first intimations I received of the desire of my relative to get in touch with me.”

And you then sat with other mediums, including Cecil Husk?

“[True], the blind medium, Cecil Husk, the psychic more frequently engaged for these séances, was then at his best. The phenomena which took place were the materialization of the heads and busts of discarnate entities, spirit singing, whispers and the flight of a musical instrument round the rooms, over the heads of the sitters, all the while playing a definite tune…Husk sat in the circle at the table in every case. I soon saw and heard a number of things that could not be explained away by any system of juggling or deception of any sort. The principal control or familiar spirit of Husk is the famous buccaneer of the time of Charles II, Sir Henry Morgan, who now calls himself ‘John King.’ Often I have heard his stentorian voice and have seen him materialize above the medium’s head and dematerialize through the table.”

Was it all in the dark?

“[Yes, but] when a spirit materialized it showed itself by aid in an illuminated slate, prepared and lying on the table. Sometimes they spoke while in sight, but more often in the dark after they had dropped the slate; when in sight, the lips could be seen to move. Except in the case of John King, who was life-size, the faces and busts were about two-thirds of life size. The singing was remarkable; the voices would join with us, and also execute solos. I have heard as many as eight different male voices, from tenor to deep bass, singing at different times during one séance; and at different séances, I have heard twelve languages spoken in direct voice.”

I recall reading somewhere that Husk was caught cheating on one occasion.

“Mr. Cecil Husk’s séances have been the theme of many discussions amongst spiritists. I have sat with him over forty times, and have only once suspected fraud. On that occasion the conditions were bad, and I am by no means sure that my doubts were reasonable. Even supposing my first ideas were correct, there were good reasons for attributing the trick I thought I had witnessed to unconscious fraud….[Moreover,] the manifestations that occur through the mediumship of Husk when in private rooms are far better than those which happen in his own house…The materializations which represent the sitters’ friends are less than life-size. If frauds, they must be dummies. But, if dummies, how is it the lips are seen to move when they speak? And, if dummies, they would appear more natural. I have seen faces even half life-size – for they vary very much – but none that I can remember which looked fresh and good color, such as you would expect from a face intended to simulate that of a human being. There was a parchment appearance about all that came to me, and there is an undefinable look of Husk in some. This ‘Husky’ appearance is just what we ought to expect, unless we are to suppose that the medium through whom they manifest has imparted nothing of individuality to the form and face…[As I earlier mentioned], I have heard twelve languages spoken at different séances [with Husk].”

Did you otherwise encounter much fraud?

“There is a great deal of fraud in the practice of spiritism – fraud intentional and conscious, and unconscious fraud. There is no doubt that the trickery imposed here and in America had deterred thousands of people from investigation of the subject. ..The temptations of these psychics are great; whatever powers they possess are sporadic and cannot be summoned at will; they find this out early in their development, and, in order to maintain regular séances, they learn the art of jugglery to ‘help out’ their particular gift at times when they feel they have not got their usual power. People travel long distances to sit with them. They have not the moral courage to say, ‘I have little or no power today; come another time.’ Possibly they do not know how much power they have, nor how far their guides can assist them, until they go into trance. If they turn their patrons away from the door, a murmur is soon circulated that they are not reliable, and sitters fail to attend; their income, never large, dwindles away, and they are stranded without means of a livelihood. Having surrendered themselves for two or three years to the trance condition, they cannot adapt any of the ordinary wage-earning occupations of life, and they become destitute. Competition is keen, and they see others prospering by keeping up their séances with artificial assistance. Though we cannot defend, we can at least understand the causes of fraud in mediumship.”

Would you mind explaining what you mean by unconscious fraud?

“All psychics are in danger of losing their power at a séance from the mental action of hostile sitters. They are usually in a state of self-imposed hypnosis. A man sits down in the circle and impresses them with a perpetually recurring suspicion, ‘You are going to deceive me.’ Eventually the thought becomes an active dynamic force, and the medium senses strongly, ‘I am going to deceive him.’…Some investigators imagine that if a medium is in trance he cannot commit fraud. This is an error. If the intention is in his mind before entering the hypnotic state, he may or may not carry it out.”

As I recall, you traveled to New York in 1904 and sat with various mediums there.

“[Correct], I arrived on Christmas day, a Sunday. That evening I attended a materialization séance; Mr. de Witt Hough was the medium. The female figures were veiled, but one appeared at the opening of the cabinet, after some six or seven materializations had taken place, which was precisely the right height and figure of Iola, and gave her earth name. I approached the cabinet; the figure advanced to meet me with outstretched hands; she was trembling excessively, and could utter only a few words. I saw her twice after that through Hough’s mediumship, and communicated with her many times through psychics in New York and Boston. On one occasion she said, ‘I did not know I was dead until I saw someone cut off a lock of my hair from behind my right ear.’ I was ignorant of this as I was in the Indian Ocean when my relative died in Scotland, but on inquiry, I found the statement to be correct: after her death a lock of hair had been cut off from behind her right ear.”

So what was your overall view of the matter after your first trip to the U.S.?

“I remained in America one month, and saw and heard quite enough to convince me that those whom I had thought of as dead were very much alive. I returned to England in a frame of mind read to receive the truths of spiritualism if I could find them in any honest quarter…I endeavored to persuade others that this spiritism was no vain delusion, but a hypothesis which had come to stay, and was not to be disregarded. [I arranged for private séances, but] I found they could not see as I did, could not hear as I heard. Their minds were unprepared. Some were considerably impressed at the moment, but the next day thought themselves the victims of jugglery on the part of the medium or some confederate…Speaking generally their view was, ‘We are not experts in juggling, and we do not know what may be possible in that line; this contrary to all human experience; we cannot believe it.’ I remember, especially, one electrical engineer and one lady who could see or hear hardly anything. They were both hostile to the subject, and their eyes and ears were open only to what their minds expected – which was nothing – or fraud.”

I know what you mean. It seems that there is a will to disbelieve.

“[Exactly.] No man can give to another the understanding to assimilate facts new to ordinary human experience. Nor do I imagine that science will prove anything in either the mental of physical aspects of spiritism. Mortals know of only three dimensions. They may suspect that, outside their ken, there are beings operating in four or more, but all they see is the effect of these operations…When it comes to the passage of matter through matter, and others of the higher forces of spiritism that can only be witnessed under favorable mental and atmospheric conditions, it is difficult to see how science can prove anything.”

You returned to America for further observations, correct?

“[Yes.] I had seen every phenomenon worth seeing in England. I had read every book worth reading on the subject of spiritism, and a good deal of trash, including The Confessions of a Medium, which bears internal evidence of being written by an anti-spiritualist, and which, though pure fiction, has been put forward as a true narrative. I knew that, owing to our unfortunate climate, it was useless to pursue my inquiries further in this country, and I resolved to return to America to complete my study in December 1908. This time I determined to go inland, where I was wholly unknown, and I spent two and a half months in Rochester, N.Y., Toledo, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois. The evidence I obtained in these cities convinced me that I had been in direct communication with Iola, and with many relatives and friends through her influence, by the mediumship of professional and non-professional psychics. The phenomena consisted of automatic mirror-writing, materialization, direct writings, pictures precipitated by invisible intelligences, and the direct voice. The correlation of the evidence through different psychics who did not know one another, and in some cases had not even heard of one another, was striking, and – to me – conclusive of the genuineness of each. I left the United States with an impression, not likely to be easily removed, that there was only one alternative to the spiritistic hypothesis – that of the continual presence of personating demons, able to read every thought of mortals, and to construct at will dramatic situations that answered every doubt and uncertainty in the mind of an investigator. This is the Roman Catholic doctrine. I reject it, not only because of its intrinsic improbability, but on account of the consideration of many incidents of a strictly private nature that cannot be here related.”

Why do you think you experienced so much in the way of communication and other phenomena while others obtain nothing with the same medium?

“No more honest man ever lived than Charles Bradlaugh, George Jacob Holyoake, Charles Watts, or Robert Ingersoll. [Yet,] they could not obtain any phenomena which satisfied them that they were in contact with another world. Bradlaugh once said on the platform, ‘I have given attention to this subject for twenty years, and have never seen a single phenomenon.’ Of course not! Good man as he was, the delicate manifestations of spiritism were not for such as he. The open-minded agnostic is not harmful, but the man who delivers, as he did, that nothing exists but matter cognizable to our poor senses has put on an armor which no spiritual weapon will pierce.”

So harmony is very important?

“Over and over again, it has been noticed that the mental attitude of the sitters has a marked influence on the success of the séances. The atmospheric conditions, though they help or hinder manifestations to a large degree, are not of so much importance. The essential condition is a small, harmonious circle of people bound together by a common faith in the possibility of communication with beings in another state of consciousness; not blindly credulous, but with all their senses on the altar, and passive in the expectations of any individuality. If the medium is in a trance, he will open to suggestion and sensitive to thoughts around. Suspicion and hostility impress him instantly; and I think it is not too much to say that, if more than half the circle are suspecting fraud, the company as a whole will get it in some form or another. Personally, I will never again sit in a circle with any pseudo-scientific investigator or avowed materialist.”

What about the theory that medium is reading the minds of the sitters?

“We have not the faintest evidence that the subconscious self can be tapped by a stranger on first meeting. To believe it can is to believe that a medium can read the motives, character and innermost thoughts of every person he or she passes in the street. Is it not less difficult to accept the fact at once that Maggie Gaule received her information from spirits present – in this case from Dr. S’s son, who had accompanied me to her house? He and I alone knew what had taken place.”

I know that Etta Wriedt really impressed you. Please tell a little of your experiences with her.

“My experiences with this wonderful medium in 1909 were insignificant compared with this, my third, visit to America. All my relatives that I wished to hear from spoke to me at some time or the other, touching upon all sorts of subjects of family interest. Iola talked daily at considerable length, often standing before me, a radiant figure in white garments but features invisible, clearly enunciating her sentences in pure English. …Mrs. Wriedt speaks Yankee; English was not spoken by any spirit friends of American sitters. Most of my sitting were with the psychic alone, when Iola would manifest and explain matters which happened as much as fifty years ago….During my investigations into the phenomena of spiritism, I have never met with anyone whose mediumship has brought me so close to the next state of consciousness as Mrs. Wriedt…The phenomena that occur are etherealizations and the direct voice through the trumpet; the former are more rare than the latter. It is possible to hear the voices through the trumpet in broad daylight or gaslight; but the operation is slow and unsatisfactory, and the investigator will find it best to sit in total darkness…She does not fall into a trance, and often joins in the conversation going on between the sitter and the spirit visitor; she speaks sometimes at the same instant as her control or the other spirits…I have heard three [spirit] voices talking at once, one in each ear and one through the trumpet, sometimes two in the trumpet…I cannot recall one single circumstance which led me to form any suspicion as to her integrity, though I was on the alert throughout. In that quiet room at Detroit, I have heard, through the trumpet, the sounds of expression of nearly every human emotion except anger. Laughter, sighs, and utterances of disappointment were common. Taking it altogether, I have never been present at such realistic séances; in fact, I often forgot that I was conversing with those whom we ignorantly speak of as ‘the dead.’”

Would you give an example of some information that came through outside the scope of research? Of course, I realize that research in those days would have been much more difficult than it is today, but the skeptics don’t seem to recognize this.

“[Certainly.] When I was a boy, a family tangle took place which puzzled me very much. Up to this time (1911) I had not even suspected the real truth. My guide (Iola), in the course of four or five interviews, solved the enigma, and brought three witnesses from spirit life who spoke at some length to prove that she was right. Dates were given and motives explained. I possessed just sufficient knowledge of what had taken place at that time to be able to assure myself – now that the light was thrown upon certain incidents – that all they said was true. No one living knows anything about it except myself; but I am certain that the explanation, given with great earnestness and wealth of detail, by these visitants from the next state of consciousness is the correct one.”

In “The Voices,” you mentioned that William T. Stead, the famous British journalist who was on his way to give a lecture at Carnegie Hall when he went down with the Titanic on April 14, 1912, communicated. As I understand it, Mrs. Wriedt was to accompany Mr. Stead on his return trip to England. She made the trip alone and stayed at Mr. Stead’s home with Stead’s daughter, Estelle. Please tell a little of this experience.

“The first appearance of W. T. Stead at Cambridge House, Wimbledon, his country residence when in life, was at 11:30 a.m., May 6, when I was sitting in the dark alone with Mrs. Wriedt…On the same evening a meeting of Julia’s Circle (the name given by Stead to his mediumship circle) was organized to welcome Mrs. Wriedt; it was attended by Miss Stead. The first spirit that manifested was Cardinal Newman, who recited a Latin benediction; Dr. Sharp (one of Mrs. Wriedt’s spirit controls) made himself known in a loud, clear voice. Grayfeather (another of her spirit controls) followed; then Mr. Stead; he was followed by the son of two of the sitters and by Iola. Finally, Mr. Stead came again. The séance lasted one hour and a quarter, and was replete with incident. The voice of the Cardinal was heard the instant the lights were put out. At least forty minutes were taken up by Stead talking to his daughter. I could not help hearing every word. It was the most painful and, at the same time, the most realistic convincing conversation I have ever heard during my investigations. The first time he came it was chiefly to give directions to his daughter as to the disposal of his private papers. Miss Estelle was, naturally, much agitated, and her grief at last reacted upon her father, who uttered a lout shout, ‘Oh my God!’ and dropped the trumpet, which fell to the floor with a crash. The second visit, which was at the end of the séance, was a calmer manifestation; this time the speaker was much assisted by Dr. Sharp, who sometimes interpreted what he wanted to say…I may mention that Stead’s talk on every occasion that he came was characteristic of him. Nobody who heard it and who had enjoyed the privilege of knowing him in life could doubt that he was before us.”

I know of no claims of fraud against Mrs. Wriedt, but I know that Joseph B. Jonson was accused of fraud. Dr. John King, president of the Canadian Society of Psychical Research, (not to be confused with John King, the spirit control) reported much the same thing as you did with Jonson. How can we reconcile your report and Dr. King’s with those who claim fraud?

“It is hardly necessary for me to say that the Jonsons have been accused of fraud, like all other professional psychics, good, bad, and indifferent. I have never heard of an instance where a definite charge has been brought against them and been proved. All I know of are the usual slanders by other competing mediums, by well-intentioned friends of the sitters, and writing private and public, by authors of the arm-chair type. As Jonson sits outside the cabinet for a part of every séance, and his wife scarcely ever goes near him, the only question that can be raised by the most rabid skeptic is that of several confederates at each séance. I consider that this may be ignored, for the following reasons: They could not enter from below or from outside the house without observation, nor could they come by the staircase without passing the members of the circle; in cases when the sitters were over nine in number, they would have to go through the circle…[Moreover,] the expense and the difficulty of finding the histrionic capacity in the neighborhood forbid such an explanation of the supernormal phenomena that take place at these séances… Before undertaking the investigation of the Jonsons, I conferred with my friend, Mr. Homer Taylor Yaryan, who was chief of the secret police under the Grant administration. Mr. Yaryan is a detective of great skill, and the last man in America to allow himself to be bamboozled. The Jonsons have given [successful] séances in his house. He has watched these mediums carefully for years, and assured me they were genuine. After sitting with them several times, always in the afternoon, I am certain he is right.”

Thank you, Admiral. Any closing thoughts?

“I do not deny that communication with the spirit world is full of perplexities. Answers to questions put to spirits are often contradictory and apparently misleading. Generally, this is owing to the difficulty experienced in describing to beings who are functioning in three dimensions what is taking place in a region inhabited by those who are functioning in four or more. But the essential points are gained quickly by the earnest investigator; he soon learns that he is destined to live again; that immortality is a fact; that he can commune without much difficulty with those whom the world calls dead….The difficulty of our spirit visitors in communicating at all must be enormous. We ply them with questions, the majority of which they are not able to answer because they have not yet reached the higher spheres; they make the attempt by stating what they have heard from others, and are, doubtless, often incorrect…[Further,] the higher spirits are hampered by the personality of the medium. To us, it is highly important that the medium should be an ignorant person, unable to form any theories for herself, so that we shall received the undiluted message. But here is another side to the question. When the psychic is densely ignorant it appears to be impossible, at times, for the spirit to get through any lofty ideas. I have watched this often.”

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