Over the years I have read hundreds of accounts of spirit communication through mediums. People sometimes ask me to name the most interesting case I have come across. I tell them it is the story told by Dr. Neville Whymant, a British professor of linguistics, in his 1931 book, Psychic Adventures in New York.
Whymant, who is said to have known 30 languages, was visiting New York City in 1926 and was invited to attend a séance at the home of Judge and Mrs. William Cannon on Park Ave. Whymant had never before attended a séance and was quite sceptical, even though he knew William Cannon to be a highly-respected lawyer and judge.
It was explained to Whymant that the medium, George Valiantine, was a direct-voice medium and that his vocal cords did not produce the voices or sounds he would hear during the séance. Rather, an aluminium trumpet, which was placed in the centre of the circle of chairs, would be used by the spirits in amplifying their otherwise weak or whispered voices. The medium, Whymant was told, simply provided the ectoplasm from which the spirits moulded vocal cords and larynges. Whymant had heard such mediums are expert ventriloquists and was on guard for that possibility.
Like many mediums, George Valiantine apparently began losing some of his powers, during the early 1930s, after a dozen or so years of producing awesome phenomena. As a result, he was accused of being a charlatan and his reputation was thereafter tainted. It is, however, difficult to read the accounts of Valiantine's mediumship by many credible and intelligent men and believe that he was anything but a true medium before his powers began leaving him, or before low-level spirits began controlling him. It was reported that at least 14 languages, including Portuguese, Italian, Basque, Welsh, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Hindustani, and Chinese were spoken by spirits through Valiantine. Moreover, many deceased friends and relatives spoke to the sitters in their characteristic voices and talked of things which Valiantine could not possibly have known about or researched.
To begin the séance, the group recited the Lord's Prayer, and then sacred music was played on a gramophone in order to “bring the vibrations into harmony with those of the spirit world.”
“Suddenly into the sound of the singing came the sound of a strong voice raised in greeting,” Whymant recorded. “It seemed to rise up from the floor and was so strong that for some moments I felt convinced that I could actually feel the vibrations of the floor.” The voice, Whymant was informed, was that of Dr. Barnett, the spirit leader of the circle, who opened it and closed it at will. Shortly thereafter, another voice “totally different in timbre and quality” was heard. This voice, the newcomers were informed, was that of Blackfoot, an American Indian of the tribe of that name, who was the keeper of the “spirit door.” Some whispered messages to regular members of the circle from deceased relatives or friends then followed. Mrs. Whymant's father communicated in his characteristic drawl, reminiscent of the West County of England. Whymant was certain that Valiantine could have known nothing of his wife's father.
The trumpet floated in front of Whymant and he heard a “voice” come through in an ancient Chinese dialect: Greeting, O son of learning and reader of strange books! This unworthy servant bows humbly before such excellence. Whymant recognized the language as that of the Chinese Classics, edited by Confucius 2,500 years earlier. It was Chinese so dead colloquially as Sanskrit or Latin. “If this was a hoax, it was a particularly clever one, far beyond the scope of any of the sinologues now living,” Whymant mused.
Although he understood the ancient language, Whymant found it necessary to respond in more modern Chinese. Peace be upon thee, O illustrious one. This uncultured menial ventures to ask thy name and illustrious style. The “voice” replied: My mean name is K'ung, men call me Fu-tsu, and my lowly style is Kiu.
Whymant recognized this as the name by which Confucius was canonized. Not certain that he heard right, Whymant asked for the voice to repeat the name. “This time without any hesitation at all came the name K'ung-fu-tzu,” Whymant wrote. “Now I thought, was my opportunity. Chinese I had long regarded as my own special research area, and he would be a wise man, medium or other, who would attempt to trick me on such soil. If this tremulous voice were that of the old ethicist who had personally edited the Chinese classics, then I had an abundance of questions to ask him.”
At that point, the “voice” was difficult to understand and Whymant had to ask for repetition. “Then it burst upon me that I was listening to Chinese of a purity and delicacy not now spoken in any part of China.”
Apparently the communicating spirit recognized that Whymant was having a difficult time understanding the ancient dialect and changed to a more modern dialect. Whymant wondered how he could test the voice and remembered that there are several poems in Confucius' Shih King which have baffled both Chinese and Western scholars.
Whymant addressed the “voice”: This stupid one would know the correct reading of the verse in Shih King. It has been hidden from understanding for long centuries, and men look upon it with eyes that are blind. The passage begins thus: Ts'ai ts'ai chüan êrh…
Whymant had recalled that line as the first line of the third ode of the first book of Chou nan, although he did not recall the remaining 14 lines. “The ‘voice' took up the poem and recited it to the end,” Whymant wrote.
The “voice” put a new construction on the verses so that it made sense to Whymant. It was, the “voice” explained, a psychic poem. The mystery was solved. But Whymant had another test. He asked the “voice” if he could ask for further wisdom.
Ask not of an empty barrel much fish, O wise one! Many things which are now dark shall be light to thee, but the time is not yet…the “voice” answered.
Whymant addressed the “voice”: “…In Lun Yü, Hsia Pien, there is a passage that is wrongly written. Should it not read thus:…?
Before Whymant could finish the sentence, the “voice” carried the passage to the end and explained that the copyists were in error, as the character written as 'sê' should have been 'i', and the character written as 'yen' is an error for 'fou'. It all made sense to Whymant, and a mystery that had bothered scholars had been solved.
Whymant attended 11 additional sittings, dialoguing with the “voice” claiming to be Confucius in a number of them. At one sitting, another “voice” broke in speaking some strange French dialect. Whymant recognized it as Labourdin Basque. Although he was more accustomed to speaking Spanish Basque, he managed to carry on a conversation with the “voice.”
“Altogether fourteen foreign languages were used in the course of the twelve sittings I attended,” Whymant concluded the short book. “They included Chinese, Hindi, Persian, Basque, Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, Yiddish, (spoken with great fluency when a Yiddish- and Hebrew-speaking Jew was a member of the circle), German and modern Greek.”
Whymant also recorded that at one sitting, Valiantine was carrying on a conversation in American English with the person next to him while foreign languages were coming through the trumpet. “I am assured, too, that it is impossible for anyone to ‘throw his voice,' this being merely an illusion of the ventriloquist,” he wrote.
Not being a spiritualist or psychical researcher, Whymant did not initially plan to write the book. However, tiring of telling the story so many times, he agreed to put it in writing, asking that with the publication of the book that others not ask him to tell the story again.