(Invesigator 96, 2004 May)

"My right arm was seized with a convulsive tremor and then in a ‘positive condition' it refuses obedience to my will... A pencil and paper were lying on the table. The pencil came into my hand: my fingers were clenched on it! An unseen iron grasp compressed the tendons of my arm: my hand was flung violently forward on the paper and I wrote meaning sentences, without any intention or knowing what they were to be..."
The above quote, although uttered by a woman who attended a mid nineteenth century seance, is typical of those who experience the phenomenon known as automatic writing. The term "automatic" when applied to writing, painting and drawing, is when the hand of the individual producing it is not consciously directed by that person's mind.

While normally the province of psychics and mediums, the ability is not confined to them. Some automatists come to exhibit extraordinary skills reporting events and information of which they could not possibly have had prior knowledge; fragments of languages not consciously known to them and drawings and paintings far superior to anything that they could accomplish in their normal state; the complicated symbolic drawings for example, described in two early British works, W. M. Wilkinson's Spirit Drawings (1858), and Mrs de Morgan's From Matter to Spirit (1863).

Often automatic writing will seemingly have an origin other than that of the automist another person, one who has died, or even a supernatural being.

When the Spiritualist movement gathered momentum in the 1850s, it incorporated many of the beliefs and practices popular with the Mesmeric movement, among them those of speaking and writing while in a trance, leaving to prosperity a variety of published discourses usually from the eminent deceased.

The majority of these publications were of a religious nature, consisting of accounts describing the hereafter and life in it.

The celebrated American medium and automatist Mrs Leanora Piper, was studied and supervised by prominent psychical researchers over a period of thirty years at the turn of the century, and despite being introduced to persons unknown to her, was able by means of automatic painting or speaking, to give correct information about the strangers' deceased friends and relatives.

Many complicated, ingenious and celebrated experiments have been conducted by the British and American Societies for Psychical Research (1882-1993), and it has been argued by many of its members that the concordance between the writings of the various automatists can only be attributed to the plans and activities of deceased persons.

Is the automatic production of a work a paranormal phenomenon, or can more credence be had in the psychologists' explanation that it is a manifestation of the subconscious personality?

Historically speaking, writing while in a trance or as the result of post-hypnotic suggestion flourished during the Mesmer movement in the early part of the nineteenth century and was enthusiastically adopted by spiritualists in the 1850s who saw the phenomenon as a means of communicating with the deceased, thus validating their belief in life after death.

Most published automatic scripts fall into one of two classes, the greater consisting of moral and religious precepts and accounts of the world hereafter, purportedly coming from the spirits of the dead; and historical romances, dictated by the deceased who had first hand knowledge of the events and the times about which they narrated.

In a few cases the works produced by automatists were held to be beyond their normal skills or knowledge, thus encouraging the belief that they were guided by some source other than their own. The supernatural origin of certain writings, drawings and paintings was self-evident to many enthusiasts in the early days of 19th century Spiritualism, but with the advance of science in the latter half of the century more prosaic explanations were sought.

Experiments in hypnosis and observations made in mental institutions and hospitals of brain damaged patients indicated that intelligent activities of which a person may not be cognizant may be exhibited in unexpected ways.

These less startling explanations led to demand for more proof of a guiding spirit's identity, by seeking correct information from them about themselves which could not have been known to the automatist.

One of the earliest mediums who attempted to produce evidence of this kind was W. Stainton Moses, whose spirit "controls" would drop in and occasionally give information about themselves which was later verified as being correct. The problem with these "drop-in communicators" as they came to be known, was that there could be no certainty that the information was not already known to the medium.

In their pre-occupation with seeking proof that communication with the spirit world was possible, the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR) evolved an ingenious way of demonstrating survival, known as "cross correspondences", in which messages purported to be coming from the same source were recorded by different people in widely separated locations.

Three members of the society, Mrs Verrall, who was in Cambridge; Mrs Piper in Boston; and Mrs Fleming in India, practised automatic writing and received messages purporting to come from two late former presidents of the SPR, F.W.H. Myers and Henry Sidgwick, as well as Edmund Gurney, a co-founder of the society. Taken separately, the scripts appeared to be the incoherent ramblings of classical scholars, together however, they sometimes interrelated.

While cross-correspondence seemed to indicate a single source intelligence, it was far from conclusive. It may well be, that in view of the automatists' prior and intimate knowledge of all three past members' scholarly interests and literary forms, and being motivated to become more familiar with the related works readily accessible in libraries, they were unconsciously imposing recently memorized materials together with their own images of the deceased characters.

Fraud, trickery and hoaxes have permeated the whole field of spiritualism both in the last century and in this, and automatic writing is no exception. A favourite was a message appearing on a slate which was alleged to have been written by a spirit. When an opportunity allowed investigation, it always turned out to be a simple magic trick. Deceptions such as this have tended to become less frequent due to the exposes of trickery by magicians of the caliber of Houdini and the confessions of those once thought to possess psychic powers.

Many famous mediums have found the pressure of pretence and fraud too much for them, their double standards becoming an insupportable burden, leading to a confession of their phoniness. The Fox sisters, the Davenport brothers, Helen Duncan, Henry Slade and Smith and Blackburn, to mention a few, all of whom claimed to have psychical powers, finally admitted the truth of their deceptions and confessed to fraud. The latter's disclosure, thought to have precipitated Edmund Gurney's death, which was almost certainly suicide.


Albertson, Edward. 1968. Seances and Sensitives for the Millions. Sherbourne Press. CA.
Booth, John. 1986. Psychic Paradoxes. Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY.
Brandon, Ruth. 1984. The Spiritualists. Prometheus Books. Buffalo NY.
Hines, Terrence. 1988. Pseudo-science and the Paranormal. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York.
Inglis, Brian. 1984. Science and Parascience. Hodder & Stoughton UK.
Kurtz, Paul. (Ed). 1985. A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books.
Nicholas, Margaret. 1986. The World's Greatest Psychics & Mystics. Octopus Books, London
Randi, James. 1986. Flim-Flam. Prometheus Books. Buffalo New York.

From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age.
Religion; the Supernatural; the Paranormal; the Skeptics: