Archive for November, 2012

I’m reading Roger Luckhurst’s book The Mummy’s Curse and have reached a section on the Ghost Club, of which I was unaware until today. On this particular day, celebrated by the Ghost Club as the day in the calendar on which the skein between this world and the next was at its very thinnest, it seems particularly apt to recommend this reading matter. Luckhurst writes:

In 1882, the same year that the SPR was founded, a dining club was established by the spiritualist writer and medium the Reverend William Stainton Moses and the occultist Alfred Alaric Watts. It was called the Ghost Club (not to be confused with the better-known Cambridge Ghost Club that had been formed in 1862). It was started, as a brief history of the Club outlines, ‘expressly so that persons who might object to any general publication of their experiences might be encouraged to relate them at Ghost Club in the strictest confidence. [As Luckhurst later quips, ‘The first rule of Ghost Club is that you don’t talk about Ghost Club.’ MB] It was also decidedly a club not a society: ‘We propose rigidly to confine ourselves to clubbable men.’ (The Mummy’s Curse, 46)

That last line was Moses writing to the gentleman below, Charles Carleton Massey.

Charles Carleton Massey by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant)

Charles Carleton Massey by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant)
platinum print, 1890s
Reproduced under a creative commons license from The National Portrait Gallery
NPG Ax68485

Massey was something of a player in the scene of fin de siècle occultism, as William Barrett’s obituary in the Journal of the SPR explained [it’s in this volume, if you’re interested], participating in just about every group or society going.

He had been a signatory at the founding of the Theosophical Society [TS] in New York having met and befriended Colonel Henry Steel Olcott while both were visiting the Eddy ranch in Chittenden in 1875 in investigate the phenomena taking place there. In 1876, the qualified barrister Massey defended the medium Doctor Henry Slade in a highly entertaining trial for fraud  brought by Professor Edwin Ray Lankester. Massey went on to translate Zöllner’s Transcendental Physics [see posts passim], von Hartmann’s Der Spiritismus and Baron Carl du Prel’s The Philosophy of Mysticism: in the final analysis it was as a translator of occult works that he left a mark.

Massey’s translation of Transcendental Physics and subsequent defence of Zöllner’s reputation introduced English readers to this body of higher spatial theorisation. His professional status as a qualified barrister, and his family connections – his father was the liberal MP, Rt. Hon. William N. Massey – lent him a powerful legitimating role, both legally and socially, and he was a prized signatory to the foundation of the TS for this reason. He was the founder and later President of the London Lodge and his public departure in 1884, following the notorious Kiddle Incident, severely damaged the reputation of the Society.[1]His defection to the SPR, with whom he already had public connections, prefigured the SPR’s damning report into the TS.

Massey is exemplary of the permeability between the TS and other groups in this period. Many leading spiritualists were also, at one time or another, members of the TS, and vice versa. Alongside Massey at the foundation of the Society were Emma Hardinge Britten, who would go on to edit The Two Worlds and The Unseen Universe, and the aforementioned William Stainton Moses, editor of Medium and Daybreak and founding member of the Society for Psychic Research, the London Spiritualist Alliance and the College of Psychic Studies. Both Massey and Moses were present at the initiation of C. W. Leadbeater into the TS on February 21, 1884, as was Frederick Myers, and initiated on the same occasion were William Crookes and his wife: spiritualist aristocracy and leading lights in the SPR all present and correct. The English barrister played an important, and largely unrecorded, mediating role in the history of psychic research in the fin de siècle, Barrett’s obituary telling of ‘a profound student both of philosophy and psychology, and one of the most original and suggestive thinkers I have ever known’ and regretting the fact that ‘he has left behind him no work to make his name more widely known and admired’.[2]

Despite the fact that he remained lifelong friends with Olcott, Massey’s public defection probably explains Blavatsky’s less than enthusiastic embrace of higher space in The Secret Doctrine. She had, after all, given positive notice of Transcendental Physics in her review in The Theosophist, which trumpeted Massey’s achievements on behalf of the Society:

It is not too much to say that in this one case the agency of the Theosophical Society was productive of an effect upon the relations of exact science with psychological research the importance of which must be felt for long years to come. Not only was Slade originally chosen by Theosophists for the European experiment and sent abroad, but at his London trial he was defended by a Theosophist barrister, Mr. Massey; at St. Petersburg another Theosophist, Mr. Aksakoff, had him in charge; and now Mr. Massey has bequeathed to future generations of English readers the full story of his wondrous psychical gifts.[3]

By the time of the publication of The Secret Doctrine at the end of 1888, however, Blavatsky was considerably more critical of the ideas contained in the book and one senses a touch of sour grapes.

Luckhurst records that Massey was also President of the Ghost Club and a post mortem visitor to seances held by the Brothers.

Happy Hallowmas!

[1] For a detailed account of the Kiddle Incident see Massey’s own resignation letter, ‘Explanation of the “Kiddle Incident” in the Fourth Edition of “The Occult World”’, Light, 26 July, 1884, pp. 307-9.

[2] William Barrett, ‘Obituary: C.C. Massey’, Journal of Society for Psychical Research (June 1905), 95-99 (p. 95). Barrett went some way to correcting this by publishing an anthology of Massey’s essays and correspondence.

[3] H.P. Blavatsky, ‘Transcendental Physics’, The Theosophist, 2, 5, ( 1881), 95-97.

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