Interview With

Hester Travers Smith
Hester Travers SmithInterviewed by Michael E. Tymn

A resident of Dublin, Ireland, Hester Travers Smith (1868-1949) was the daughter of Professor Edward Dowden, a distinguished Shakespearian scholar, and the wife of a prominent Dublin physician. She was primarily a ouija board medium, sitting regularly with a small group of friends, including Lennox Robinson, a world-renowned Irish playwright, and the Rev. Savell Hicks, M.A. Sir William Barrett, the distinguished physicist and psychical researcher, was a close personal friend and also attended a number of sittings with the group. Geraldine Cummins, perhaps the most famous automatist in history, was introduced to mediumship by Travers Smith, who is referred to in books by Cummins by her maiden name, Hester Dowden. Travers Smith was also an automatic writing medium.

This “interview” with Travers Smith is based on her 1919 book, Voices From the Void, published by E. P. Dutton & Co. Except for words in brackets, inserted to permit a flow and the occasional omission of transitional words, the responses are verbatim from the book. The questions have been formed to fit the “responses.”

Miss Travers Smith, would you mind elaborating a little on your experiences in mediumship?

"[Certainly], I have never attended a séance for materialization; I have never seen a ghost. Nearly all my experiences have come to me through automatism. I must confess that for some time past I have been quite clear and decided on one point – in feeling that the subliminal self accounts for much and many things, but not for everything. I am convinced, in fact, that external influences of some nature work through us, using our senses, eyes, ears, brains, etc., their messages, however, being highly colored by the personalities of their mediums. I feel sure that hardly any of the communications I have had are entirely due to subconsciousness.”

By “automatism,” I take it you are referring to the ouija board and automatic writing. Do you use a special ouija board?

"The best ouija board, the one I invariably use myself, is a card table covered with green baize, on which the letters of the alphabet, the numbers from 0 to 9, and the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are laid, cut separately on small pieces of cardboard; over this is placed a sheet of plate glass, the same size as the table. The traveler consists of a small triangular piece of wood, about half an inch thick, shod with three small pieces of carpet felt and having on top a piece of soft rubber material on which the fingers rest.”

Do the words come slowly?

"I think the experimenters, who try the ouija board, will, if they have any psychic power, soon be amazed at the rapidity with which the traveler flies from letter to letter. The cooperation of two automatists seems best; three seems to create confusion…I can answer for myself, and I believe for my fellow sitters, that never in the course of all the months we sat together did we see the board while communications were coming through, nor did any of us know at the time what these communications were, as they were recorded in silence by a friend, who was obliged to take them down in shorthand, such was the rapidity with which the traveler moved from letter to letter.

I understand that many of your messages came through while you and the other sitter were blindfolded, a third person recording the messages. Is that common?

"The gift of ‘seeing without eyes’ is certainly comparatively rare. I have sought diligently for mediums who possess the power of working blindfold, and find they are few in number. In fact, I have only met four out of the many I have tried who have this gift. I generally distinguish a blindfold worker by the fact that before he has had any suggestion that we should close our eyes he will close his of his own accord, and prefer to sit without looking at the letters. Blindfold sitting is very exhausting as a rule.”

When there are two sitters, does one usually supply most of the power?

"The [spirit] control will generally say he requires ‘a negative and a positive.’ What this means exactly it is hard to understand, but from watching many combinations at the ouija board, I have gathered that a ‘positive’ medium receives the message through his or her brain and transmits it to the board, while a negative possesses the driving force. I mean that, apparently, one sitter supplies mental, and the other muscular power.”

You have stated that results weren’t as good when Lennox Robinson was not sitting with you.

"It seemed that the really marvelous power of ‘seeing without eyes’ rested largely, or perhaps completely, with Mr. Robinson. After he had left Dublin and the circle was broken, the Rev. Savell Hicks and I tried repeatedly to get messages blindfolded, but without success. I have succeeded in getting blindfold work through with other mediums, but none of them have the rapidity and certainty possessed with Mr. Robinson.”

You also mention in the book that results are often slow, uncertain, and cannot be forced. Would you mind elaborating a little on that?

"Indeed, one asks oneself whether time is well spent seeking for the few grains of gold one finds in the huge dust heaps of disappointment and dullness. The value of these golden grains seems immense when one has wandered about in a Hades of dim trivialities and even absurdities, spending evening after evening receiving messages from known, or unknown persons of a kind which would not do credit to a very mediocre letter writer. Yet, these communications purport to be what the unknown control has an ardent desire to get through from the world of mystery to those still alive! Many times I have felt inclined to give up this apparently hopeless pursuit, elusive and as it is.”

What about automatic writing?

"This mode of communication has produced most interesting results without doubt, but there are objections to it. A pencil is held generally between the first and third fingers of the hand of the medium; it touches the paper, and as a rule, after some preliminary flourishes and twirls, the pencil begins to write coherent words and messages. These messages vary according to the communicator, and the handwriting changes as different personalities appear. Sometimes the writing is that of a child, then of an old person, etc. One of my objections is that the script is generally difficult to decipher, as the pencil cannot be lifted as in ordinary handwriting, and the manuscript is full of scrawls and hard to read. This is not my only objections on automatic writing, which, for some unknown reason, leads in certain cases to continual pain in the arm, an irresistible desire to write, nervous upset, and consequent physical prostration. However, without doubt, most interesting and evidential results have been obtained by automatic writing, and my objections to this method do not hold good in all cases.”

Can you generalize in describing a routine case of apparent communication?

"In almost all cases where a discarnate spirit professes to speak, I ask for an account of his passing over. These accounts vary very little; they all retain the same features, though some are more detailed than others. In all cases, a period of darkness is described as occurring almost immediately after death. This darkness appears to be a penance or purgatory for the soul left thus in lonely and silent meditation, and it is evidently a period of considerable suffering. Yet, during this time of darkness the spirit seems to be permitted to speak to those on earth if such opportunity be offered it. This state does not seem to last long, not more than a week or ten days, so far as I can judge from communicators who come repeatedly and speak of their present condition. They frequently say that when the light came, someone was near them, who led them away to the place where their ‘work’ was. What the nature of this ‘work’ is, they seem unable to explain.”

In your book, you mention some communicators having had a vision of the body before the darkness enveloped them.

"[Yes,] frequently when soldiers killed in battle have spoken they became aware that they had died. They tell how the battlefield lay below them, with all the horror of its details, and how they saw their own bodies lying on the field. Sometimes the vision extends, and they see the body being carried away and buried. In the same way, some of those who die in their beds describe the body lying there as when the spirit rose from it. They can see the nurses preparing it for burial, the coffin, etc.”

Do the same spirits come through again and again?

"From reviewing hundreds of messages from those who have passed away, I gather that the spirit retains its earth memory for a time. The time seems to vary with the nature of the individual. The more rarefied and exalted the soul during its earth life, the shorter its span of earth memory seems to be after it has passed through the barrier. These more highly developed souls seem gradually to rise into a region from which it is perilous to touch the earth atmosphere, except for a few minutes at a time. After this, they disappear altogether.”

Would you mind relating a specific case?

"Quite lately I had an instance of this. The communicator was a connection of my own, a very refined, gentle, intellectual personality in his earth life. He came to the ouija board repeatedly for some time while I happened to be in touch with his family, and spoke in a way which was very evidential to them; he appeared to find it impossible to communicate for more than a few minutes at a time. Then there would be a long pause, and he would come again. He told us that after a time he would be unable to speak. He had died very suddenly, and seemed to have passed quickly to a state of great peace and happiness, though he gave us no account of his surroundings or occupations; he said it was forbidden, and would, in any case, be incomprehensible to those still alive.”

Do you have a theory as to how a particular spirit is drawn to your séance room?

"This is a question I almost invariably put to controls and communicators, and their replies to the question are almost always the same. They state that a bright light attracted them – and the stronger the medium, the brighter the light. When I am sitting myself, and ask, ‘What attracted you to this room?’ the answer generally is, ‘I saw a woman wrapped in flame.’ Sometimes they describe a brilliant light on the head of the medium, but as psychic strength increases the light seems to envelop the whole body of the sensitive.”

I understand that you have had several spirit controls. Can you tell us a little about them?

"At the second or third sitting of the circle, Peter Rooney made his appearance. He stated that he was an American Irishman; that he had had a most undesirable career and spent much of his life in jail; that ten days before he communicated with us he had thrown himself under a tram-car in Boston and had been killed. Sir William Barrett, having made careful inquires from the Governor of the State prison at Boston, Mass., and from the Chief of Police in that city, found Peter Rooney’s tale an entire fabrication. A certain Peter Rooney had fallen from a tram-car in August 1910, had suffered from a scalp wound but was alive in 1914, as far as could be ascertained.”

So did you confront the alleged “Peter Rooney” about that?

"On being upbraided by us for assuming a name and identity not his own, Peter admitted that he had no desire that we should know who he was, and that he had adopted this name as ‘it was as good as any other.’ He stated that he had been interested in psychical research in his lifetime, and wished to assist investigation of supernormal phenomena now that he had ‘passed over.’ He refused absolutely to give us any further information about himself. Peter has a burning desire to shine as a ‘test’ control; he prefers us to work blindfold, and he is rashly desirous to attempt experiments. He is most uncertain in results, but, given a quiet room and his own mediums, he can do remarkable things. He is a rather primitive creature, has very strong likes and dislikes, and is very vain and fond of a display of his powers…He rather despises sittings with open eyes, and unless a medium is present who has the quality necessary for blindfold sitting he seldom comes.”

What other controls have helped you?

"[One] calls himself ‘Eyen,’ and says he was an Egyptian priest who served in the temple of Isis in the reign of Rameses II. He professes to have been attracted to the sittings at my house by the fact that I possess a piece of cerecloth in which his mummy was wrapped. Eyen is not a test control like Peter; he cannot do any ouija-work with blindfold sitters; he avoids all experiments as quite beneath him. He is quite sentimental, much inclined to flatter his mediums, and most untrustworthy in his statements and in the controls he professes to send us, who generally prove to be Eyen himself in fancy dress…Eyen has proved a fraud and liar in most ways, and he has been driven repeatedly from the board by us in consequence; but he has a very definite personality, and his smoothness, flattery, and falseness are part of it.”

Any other controls?

"The next control who occurs to me calls himself ‘Astor.’ He professes to be the ‘guide’ of an intimate friend of mine, Miss Geraldine Cummins, who lives in my house. We frequently sit together, and Astor appears invariably and opens the séance. He controls Miss Cummins’ hand most powerfully; all the force, mental and physical, seems to come through her, and I add probably a kind of balance only. Astor is, of course, chiefly interest in Miss Cummins’ concerns, but in so far as hers are connected with mine, he is deeply interested in me also, and often devotes most of his attention to me at a sitting…Astor is an intelligent creature, not given much to flattery – indeed, often very plain-spoken.

So, Peter Rooney, Eyen, and Astor have been the primary controls at your séances?

[No,] the last control I shall speak of here is one of my own who is not yet an intimate acquaintance, as she came only a few months ago. She calls herself ‘Shamar,’ says she was a Hindoo, and that she is my spirit guide, Eyen being merely ‘the guide of my astral!’ Shamar has undertaken to conduct most of my sittings lately; she devotes herself to cultivating my powers by sending me genuine communications. She says she is very fond of sending me messages from living persons who are asleep or drowsy. In these cases, absolute proof is, of course, possible sometimes. Twice lately I had conversations with friends who stated they were in a drowsy state, and the information I received through them proved true in every respect. So far as I know her, Shamar is sincere; she makes no magnificent promises, and she has been very faithful in bringing interesting communicators.”

Thank you, Ms. Travers Smith. Any parting thoughts?

"I have had some evidence which, if not entirely convincing, points so strongly to the fact that we survive what is called death that it requires more credulity to doubt the fact than to believe it…[However], if I may venture to advise persons who long to speak once more with those they have loved, who have vanished into darkness, I should say it is wise and sane not to make the attempt. The chances against genuine communication are ten to one; the disappointments and doubts connected with the experiment are great.”

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