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Psychic Experiences by Sara A. Underwood

Introductory Remarks by B. F. Underwood.

The statements in this paper as to what was written in my presence purporting to be communications from “spirits,” and as to the circumstances under which it was written, are scrupulously correct. The “communications,” it is certain, are from an intelligent source. Mrs. Underwood is the person by whose hand they are put in form. That she is not laboring under a mistake in thinking that she is unconscious of the thought expressed until she has read the writing,—if, indeed, such a mistake in a sane mind is possible,—I am certain. Sometimes, owing to the illegibility of the writing, she has to study out sentences. The writing varies in style, not only on different evenings, but on the same evening; it is apparently the writing of not fewer than twenty persons, and generally bearing no resemblance whatever, so far as I can judge, to Mrs. Underwood’s handwriting, which is remarkably uniform. The communications are unlike in the degrees of intelligence, in the quality of thought, and in the disposition which they show. Detailed statements of facts unknown to either of us, but which, weeks afterwards, were learned to be correct, have been written, and repeated again and again, when disbelieved and contradicted by us. All the writing has been done in my presence, but most of it while I have been busily occupied with work which demanded my undivided attention. The views expressed are often different from my own, and quite as frequently, perhaps, opposed to Mrs. Underwood’s views.

Some will, doubtless, interpret these facts as evidence and illustrations of the multiplex character of personality, and will regard these communications, apparently indicating several distinct intelligences, as manifestations of different strata, so to speak, of the same individual consciousness. Knowledge of the facts unknown to our ordinary consciousness was, nevertheless, some will say, in the sub-consciousness of one of us, or perhaps of both. On this theory, of course it must be supposed that the mind has stored away in its depths knowledge acquired in ways unknown. By others all the phenomena related by Mrs. Underwood will be regarded as the work of disembodied, invisible, intelligent beings who once dwelt in the flesh and lived on the earth, but who are now in a higher sphere of existence, yet able under certain conditions to make their presence and their thoughts known to us. It is not my intention here to advocate any theory as to the cause of the phenomena described by Mrs. Underwood. I simply testify now to the accuracy of all those statements in her paper in regard to her automatic writing.

B. F. Underwood.


“The known is finite, the unknown is infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land; to add something to the extent and solidity of our possessions.”—Huxley in “Reception of the ‘Origin of Species.’”

Public attention at this time especially is being called to various forms of psychic phenomena measurably through the efforts of the Society for Psychical Research in investigating and sifting the evidence for the stories of apparitions, hallucinations, forewarnings, etc., but more because so many who have heretofore scoffed at and doubted such stories, or who have been foiled in their efforts to obtain for themselves any satisfactory evidence that such phenomena really occur, are now able to testify from their own experience, in one form or another, that such are real facts of our existence.

The questions raised by the class of facts already elicited through this investigation are of supreme importance, and it becomes the duty of every serious-minded enquirer who has had experience of this kind to give the result of his investigations to the public, and thus aid those searching for the underlying cause of all such phenomena. Therefore after considerable hesitation, and with some inward shrinking from an obvious duty, I have concluded to take the consequences of publishing my own recent experience. A word of personal explanation may here be necessary. A sincere believer in Orthodox Christianity until my twentieth year, I have been led by careful study and unfaltering love of truth to give up my belief in Christian dogmas, and have for some years known no other name by which to designate my state of mind in regard to religious belief than that misunderstood and often misapplied term, agnostic. But at no stage in my mental progress have I ever felt sure that I had reached any conclusion which was final, and at no time have I been a believer in spiritualism, or been convinced that we survive the present state of being; while always I have felt an interest in every undecided question in science and religion, and earlier have had some “intimations of immortality,” which have caused me to think seriously on the subject and to long for more light. I have decided to lay the simple facts of my most recent experience before the readers of The Arena, and allow them to draw what conclusions they will without offering any theory of my own. More than a year ago my interest in psychic phenomena was awakened by reading the reports of the Society for Psychical Research, but it has been my own personal experience which has created a profound impression on my mind. If any one who reads this will try to imagine in what spirit he would greet an entire stranger or group of strangers, who through the telephone, for instance, should send him genial messages full of commonsense, philosophy, humor, and friendliness, giving him interesting details of a strange land, he can partially understand the state of mind in which, after many months of such intercourse, I find myself. Except on two or three occasions no one has been present but my husband, B. F. Underwood, and myself.

The modus operandi is the simplest possible. As I remembered that Mr. U. was rather averse to the planchette experiments of former years, thinking them unwholesome and deteriorating in their tendency, I at first said nothing to him of my new psychical experiments, though these were made oftenest in his presence in the evening when we both sat at one writing table, near each other, busied with our individual literary work. As I experimented in his absence as well as in his presence, I soon found that I got the most coherent writings when he was present. Indeed I could get nothing coherent, and very frequently nothing at all, when he was away, but when he was present the communications began to grow strangely interesting, and as he was called upon repeatedly, I felt obliged to invite his attention, when the most surprising answers were given, which roused his curiosity and interest. It has been explained that his presence is necessary for me to obtain writing, as “blended power is best.” Two or three times, at the suggestion of this intelligence, we have asked two of our intimate literary friends—non-spiritualists—to be present, but each time with comparative failure; afterwards we were informed that the cause of failure was the introduction of persons unused to the conditions, who broke up the harmonious relations necessary to communication; in time they could be of help.

It would take a volume to present all the interesting statements as to an advanced stage of existence, only hidden from us because of the inadequacy of our sense perceptions, and by the conditions imposed upon us at this stage of our progress, which have been given from this source. Explanations have been made why communication through the agency of certain persons, though not through all, are possible. The conditions, it is alleged, are not entirely dependent upon the superior intelligence or morality of the persons with whom the intelligences can become en rapport. These invisibles declare that they are as seriously and anxiously experimenting on their side to discover modes of untrammelled communication with us, as we on our side ought to be, if what they write be true, and if such a thing is possible. “Spirits” they persistently insist upon being called. In this paper I can give only a statement of some things which do not seem explicable on the hypothesis of mind-reading, thought transference, hypnotism, or subconsciousness. In all these experiments I have been in a perfectly normal state. The only physical indication of any outside influence is an occasional slight thrill as of an electric current from my shoulder to the hand which holds the waiting pen. Step by step I have been taught a series of signals to aid me in correctly reading the communications. I have no power to summon at will any individual I wish. I have repeatedly, but in vain, tried to get messages from some near and dear friends. It has been explained that on their side, as on ours, certain “conditions” must exist in order to get in “control.” When “eh?” is written I know that the operator at the other end of the line is ready to communicate. When in the middle of a sentence or a word “gone” or “change” is written, I understand that the connection is broken, and I must not expect the completion of that message. When a line like this ———— is drawn, it is a sign that that sentence is completed or the communication ended. So with other things. Rhymes are often unexpectedly written, especially if the “control” professes to be a poet, and they are dashed off so rapidly that I do not understand their import until the close when I can read them over. Impromptu rhyming is a feat utterly impossible to either Mr. U. or myself. Names persistently recur which are unknown to us. Many different handwritings appear, some of them far superior to my own. When I first began to get communications I destroyed, in a day or two after they were written, the slips of paper containing the writing, but as the developments became more interesting, Mr. U. suggested that they be preserved for reference. I acted on this suggestion, and thus in the instances of facts given outside our own knowledge, I am enabled to give the exact wording of each communication. Our questions were asked viva voce, and as they were often suggested by what had been previously written, I either at the time or soon afterward wrote them just above the reply. I am not, therefore, trusting at all to memory in the statements I shall make.

A gentleman of this city (whom I will call John Smith, but whose real name was a more uncommon one) with whom Mr. U. had been acquainted many years, but of whose family relations he knew little, died here more than a year ago. Mr. U. had met him but once in the year previous to his death, he having been away on account of failing health, staying, we understood, with a daughter recently married, whose home was in Florida. The first name of this married daughter, or of any of Mr. Smith’s daughters except one, was unknown to Mr. U. I had met one of his daughters whose name I knew to be Jennie. I also knew that there was another named Violet. I was not sure, however, whether this was the name of the married one, or of another unmarried, but had the impression that Violet was unmarried. One evening, while waiting for automatic writing with no thought of Mr. Smith in my mind, and Mr. U. sitting near me at the table with his thoughts concentrated on an article he was preparing, this was written: “John Smith will now enter into conversation with B. F. Underwood.” I read this to Mr. U. who laid aside his pen, and in order to test the matter, asked if Mr. Smith remembered the last time they met, soon after his return from the South, and a short time previous to his death. There was some delay in the answer, but soon reply came “On Madison St.” “Whereabouts on Madison?” was asked. “Near Washington.” “At what hour?” “About 10 a. m., raining.” As it was rarely that Mr. U. was in that part of the city at so early an hour, and especially on a rainy day, I doubted the correctness of this reply, but Mr. U. recalled to my mind the unusual circumstance which made it necessary for him to be in that vicinity on the day and at the hour named, on which he and Mr. Smith, he distinctly remembered, last met. Only a few words passed between them on account of the rain. After this, writing, purporting to be from Mr. Smith, came frequently. Very soon something was written which induced Mr. U. half sportively to inquire whether there was anything which troubled Mr. Smith, anything which he wished he had done but had omitted, before his death. The answer came, “One thing—change deeds on Violet’s account. None of my wife’s are at my daughter’s disposal. All in her own disposal.” Mr. U. asked if it was meant that he had not left his property—for he was a man of some wealth—as he now wished he had. “You are right,” was written, “want all my girls to share alike.” “Which daughter do you refer to?” was asked. “Went away from her in Florida—Violet,” was the answer. I remarked, “Why, I thought Violet was one of the unmarried girls, but it must be that that is the name of the married daughter.” Then Mr. U. was strongly urged to call on Mr. Smith’s married son, James, with whom Mr. U. had a slight acquaintance, and tell him of this communication. “Clearly state my desire that my daughter Violet share equally with her sisters.” Of course this was utterly out of the question. At that time we had no intention of informing any one of our psychic experience, and if we had, Mr. James Smith would have thought us insane or impertinent to come to him with so ridiculous a story, the truth of which we ourselves strongly doubted. Pages were, however, written concerning the matter in so earnest and pleading a manner that I came to feel conscience-stricken at refusing to do what was asked, and to shrink from seeing Mr. Smith’s name appear. Once was written, “Say to James that in my new position, and with my new views of life, I feel that I did wrong to treat his sister Violet as I did. She was not to blame for following out her own convictions, when I had inculcated independent thought and action for all.” This and other sentences of the kind seemed to convey the idea that Violet had in some way incurred his displeasure by doing according to her own will in opposition to his. This was puzzling to us, as we knew that in her marriage, at least, the daughter we thought to be Violet had followed her father’s wishes.

A few weeks later, however, came an unlooked-for verification of Mr. Smith’s messages. In a conversation between Mr. U. and a business friend of Mr. Smith, who was well acquainted with all his affairs, regret was expressed that so wealthy a man had left so little for a certain purpose. Mr. U. then inquired as to what disposition had been made of his property, and was told that he had left it mainly to his wife and children—so much to this one, and that. “But Violet,” continued Mr. U.’s informant, “was left only a small amount, as Mr. Smith was angry because she married against his wishes.” “Why,” remarked Mr. U., “I understood that he approved of the match, and the fact that he accompanied herself and husband to Florida, and remained with them some time, would seem to indicate that.” “Oh, you are thinking of Lucy, the eldest girl; her marriage was all right, but Violet, one of the younger daughters, going to Florida with her husband, fell in love with a young man of whom her father did not approve, so she made a runaway marriage, and on account of his displeasure, Mr. Smith left her only a small sum.” The intelligence writing was aware of facts unknown, to either Mr. U. or myself, and no other persons were in the room when these communications were given.

One evening one of us spoke of the frequently false and mischievous statements purporting to come from spirits—predictions which did not come to pass, descriptions which were wholly wrong, and sending credulous believers on wild-goose chases after hidden treasure, etc., the occasion being an untrue statement made to us in regard to the death of a friend who was alive and well. We asked if this unseen intelligence would explain why this was allowed. Reply came promptly, “Rather tough problem. There are certain phases of our existence here which are not explainable to you on your plane, and the test we were obliged to make of your credulity was one of these.” We protested against such tests, and I declared that I would not try to receive communications if they practised deception. “Why do you protest,” was written, “when you already know you are but a tyro in this phase of being? You don’t now willingly do the work assigned you, and B. F. U. is still harder to manage.” Thereupon Mr. U. suggested “that without sense organs and a material environment, conditions would be such, perhaps, that they could not be expressed in terms known to us, nor be even conceived by us.” Immediately was written: “Many wish to answer B. F. U.’s clear statement of the difficulties in the way of spirit intercourse with those still in the flesh, but now comes the one soul capable of clear answer. Blessed be they who question—gone.” Next came this—“Boehme wants to reply.” Here I have to confess that never having paid much attention to occult or mystical literature the name Boehme was utterly unknown to me, and at this point I asked Mr. U., “Did you ever hear of anyone by the name of B-o-e-h-m-e?” spelling the word. “Certainly,” he replied, “Jacob Boehme, he was a German thinker who died—” my hand began to move just then, and he paused, and while the following was being written my mind reverted hazily to a German philosophical writer, who had died within a few years, and of whose life one of our friends had written a sketch. His name began with B, and I thought he was the one Mr. U. referred to, as I had forgotten what the full name was. I say this to explain that there could be no thought-transference in this instance from Mr. U.’s mind to mine. This was written rapidly. “Death and life are but two phases of one truth, and when what mankind calls death comes, it is as we experience the change that all our circumscribed relations to banded universalities become clear; but when we try to explain to those not yet beyond man’s sphere we find ourselves at a loss because there is nothing parallel in this state of existence with your knowledge.” Afterwards Mr. U. showed me in the encyclopædia a sketch of him (the name spelled Bohme, and in several other ways) in which it was stated “he had a very fertile imagination, and a remarkable faculty of intuition, and professed to be divinely inspired,” and that he died in 1624. Since then I have found another sketch of his life which says that “owing to the fantastic terminology he thought fit to adopt, his writings are condemned by many as utterly unintelligible.” This may explain the “Banded Universalities,” a phrase I never in my life saw before, and only dimly understand now; I had never to my knowledge read a word of his writings. In my case, as in that of many who profess to give spirit messages, frequently names of dead thinkers and heroes are signed. I protested against this, saying I did not believe that these individuals were the ones who communicated, and asked for some explanation. Immediately this answer was written: “Elaine and Guinevere were not real beings but types—so somewhere in our sphere are spirits who embody cleverness in creations of their fancy, and adopt names suited to their ideas.” Since this explanation was given, I have had more patience with the communications signed by great names, since I have imagined that these are types aspired to by the real writers. But their “cleverness in creations of their fancy” extends sometimes to fair imitations of the thought and style of those whose names they borrow. For instance, since Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of my favorite poets, it is not at all strange that her name and that of her husband might be suggested by my own mind; my own mind ought also to suggest the thought of the following, written as from Mrs. Browning, though the phraseology is not mine. “Robert gave me life. He gave me to Love. He and I are but two sides of one individuality. We both understand this, as you understand it.” But then followed without any apparent pause for a word, this:—

“Let your own hearts deeply feel

The sweet songs of older lovers,

So shall song and sense appeal

To all that true emotion covers.”

I never saw these lines anywhere, and I doubt whether anyone has seen them before, while I am confident that I did not compose them. I had not then read Browning’s “One Word More,” but two days later in a magazine article I came across a quotation from that poem in which occurs the phrase “older lovers,” the magazine having been brought to the house that day, and two days after the verse was written. A day or two later at the close of a communication from an entirely different source, and one in no way suggestive of Browning, the words, “One Word More” were rapidly written, followed by this verse:—

“Round goes the world as song-birds go,

There comes an age of overthrow—

Strange dreams come true, yet still we dream

Of deeper depths in Life’s swift stream.”

This I did not compose, nor had I ever heard or seen it before.

One evening it was promised that “Brain workers of philosophical bent” would answer our questions. The first question asked was, “From your standpoint do you consider death the end of conscious existence?”

Ans.—“Death we know only as a phrase used to indicate change of environment.”

Ques.—“Is death expected on your plane as on ours, or do all understand that the next change is progressive?”

Ans.—“Slow are even those on our plane to understand the law of unending evolution.”

Ques.—“But we may apprehend what we do not fully understand or comprehend?”

Ans.—“Comprehension sees farther than understanding. Comprehend means complete understanding.”

Ques.—“Do you mean that comprehension is a word of wider significance than understanding?”

Ans.—“You are right.”

I had never given any thought to the difference between the words “understanding” and “comprehending,” and when this was written was not satisfied in my own mind that comprehend did mean more than understand. On the following day I consulted Worcester’s Unabridged Dictionary and to my surprise, under the word “comprehend” found this note: “Comprehend has a more extensive meaning than understand or apprehend.” So in this case, as in several others I have not time to cite here, the intelligence which moved my hand to write gave me knowledge which I did not myself possess. Very often in place of writing, all I could get from them would be spiral lines. Sometimes a page would be crossed and recrossed with these lines as if with some definite purpose. This suggested to me the possibility that such lines held some meaning unknown to me, and I put the question. The answer was given, “We have different modes of thought from yours—and the spiral signs are most in use with us: Some of our less advanced scientists forget that on your plane our mode of control is not understood by you. Lines are made of such esoteric meaning that, while we understand at a glance, it is impossible for those on your plane to perceive any words.” Mr. Underwood here remarked: “There are numerous spirals—all modifications of the primary straight line.”

Ans.—“Yes, the spiral is a primal law, simple yet complex, which we who understand life’s manifold ascensions grow to symbolize in our thought, language, and writing.”

I am warned by the length of this paper that I must close without being able to give one tenth part of the many strange and surprising revelations, or statements, philosophical and other, which we have gained from this strange source. I have confined myself to those which show most strongly evidence of an intelligence outside of Mr. U. or myself, the only two persons who have been concerned in obtaining them. To me personally these are not the most wonderful phases of this influence. The reasonable explanations given of the laws governing another state of human existence, but very little different from this except in being a step forward in the direction of Mind—that is to me the most wonderful, but of that I cannot speak here.

I know that my experience at this time is by no means exceptional. Before I had ever said one word to any human being except Mr. U. in regard to it, there came to me a confidential letter from a valued friend in another State, a lady of intellect and culture, confessing that like, but far more varied, phenomena were occurring through her. Like myself her position had been that of an agnostic, and the communications to her are very similar to those I have obtained. I had not heard from her in a year previous to the receipt of this letter. I have been told of two or three other cases, so far unknown to the public, all occurring within the year, and to non-spiritualists. And I judge from magazine articles written by such well-known people as O. B. Frothingham, Elizabeth Phelps Ward, and M. J. Savage, as well as from public utterances of Mrs. Livermore and others, that this wave of communication from some not fully understood source is far more extensive than is generally suspected. It is, therefore, time that all whose opinions may have weight, who have personal knowledge of such phenomena, relate what they have seen or experienced in order that these experiences may be compared, and the real source from which they emanate may be discovered, if possible.

One other strange experience in this line came to me a few years ago at the bedside of a dear friend at the point of death, which, perhaps, may be related in this connection. It was near midnight; death was momentarily expected. All the other watchers, exhausted by days of grief and care, were snatching an hour of rest; and I stood alone looking at the unconscious face before me which was distinctly visible, though the light was heavily shaded to keep the glare from the dying eyes. All her life my friend had been a Christian believer, with an unwavering faith in a life beyond this, and for her sake a bitter grief came upon me because, so far as I could see, there were no grounds for that belief. I thought I could more easily let her go out into the unknown if I could but feel that her hope would be realized, and I put into words this feeling. I pleaded that if there were any of her own departed ones present at this supreme moment could they not and would they not give me some least sign that such was the fact, and I would be content. Slowly over the dying one’s face spread a mellow radiant mist—I know no other way to describe it. In a few moments it covered the dying face as with a veil, and spread in a circle of about a foot beyond, over the pillow, the strange yellowish-white light all the more distinct from the partial darkness of the room. Then from the centre of this, immediately over the hidden face, appeared an apparently living face with smiling eyes which looked directly into mine, gazing at me with a look so full of comforting assurance that I could scarcely feel frightened. But it was so real and so strange that I wondered if I were temporarily crazed, and as it disappeared I called a watcher from another room, and went out into the open air for a few moments to recover myself under the midnight stars. When I was sure of myself I returned and took my place again alone. Then I asked that, if that appearance were real and not an hallucination, would it be made once more manifest to me; and again the phenomenon was repeated, and the kind, smiling face looked up at me—a face new to me yet wondrously familiar. Afterwards I recalled my friend’s frequent description of her dead father whom she dearly loved, but whom I had never seen, and I could not help the impression that it was his face I saw the hour that his daughter died.