SEANCE OF THE CENTURY
by George Cranley
One of the most remarkable experimental direct voice séances ever conducted took place in 1933 and was recorded on nine long-playing records. The medium was William Cartheuser who had a severe speech defect, caused by a harelip and a cleft palate yet the spirit voices that spoke at his séances were free of impediment. His sittings remain for many some of the greatest Spiritualism has ever seen.
One of the most fantastic direct voice séances ever held took place at the studios of the World Broadcasting Company (later to become Decca Records) on April 23 1933, and was recorded on nine long-playing records.
The medium for this two-and-a-quarter hour séance was William Cartheuser, a New England shoe plant worker, who had a severe speech defect, caused by a hare lip and a cleft palate.
Although he was difficult to understand during normal conversation, the spirit voices which spoke at his séances were free of impediments.
The story was written by J. Gay Stevens, a member of the American Society for Psychical Research’s investigative team.
Together with his colleagues, Dr Hereward Carrington, a lifelong psychic researcher, Helen T. Bigelow, the society’s secretary, Chester Grady, Louis Anspacher and the organizer, Dr Frank Black, the group met at the studios situated at 50 West 57th Street, new York.
The séance was instigated by Dr Black, a leading musical show producer and part owner of the WBC.
He suggested to the ASPR that it should supervise the recording of a voice séance in his studios and the resultant recordings would be donated to the society for reference and study.
The sound engineers, who were extremely skeptical, took care of the test conditions intent on unmasking the voice makers.
To a man they were certain there was no such thing as a spirit voice and regarded this as a heaven-sent opportunity to prove it in their own studio under their own recording conditions.
At this time the Western Electric Company was, installing some of the latest sound equipment into the World studios.
Hearing of the séance project they joined their World colleagues, making probably “the most formidable array of sound engineering talent ever organized to debunk a spirit voice.”
The studio itself was a large 40-foot long, windowless room.
It was soundproof and two storey’s high. Seats for the sitters were arranged around the stand microphone – ‘mike one’.
Two additional microphones, two and three, hung close to the ceiling in diagonally opposite corners.
All voices spoken in the circle would be recorded on mike one.
The ceiling equipment had such a short range of sensitivity that it would not record voices from the studio floor.
Pointing to the control room, curtained off to keep out the light, a technician indicated a recessed loudspeaker through which the engineers could communicate with those in the studio.
A man was stationed at the only exit door to see that no one entered or left during the séance.
Stevens comments: “We had no way of knowing that the engineers, after a week or so of conferring, had hit on a very simple plan that covered all possibilities.
‘‘They concluded that, no matter what tricks he ‘voice-maker used, he had to work on the floor.
“If the sounds were authentic spirit voices then they need have no such limitation in space.”
The ceiling mikes were 20 feet from the sitters and 20 feet in the air.
All extra furniture had been moved out of the studio to prevent anyone standing on it in an attempt to speak into the mikes.
In order for either mikes two or three to pick up a voice the speaker had to be within 12 inches.
Both were highly directional — they had to be spoken into head-on and not from an angle.
To make things more difficult, the engineers had turned the microphones at right angles to the circle of sitters.
Each mike had its own line of communication with the control room.
The technicians knew which mike was bringing in each voice by listening to the three independent loudspeakers and watching the dial connected to each line.
The sitters were unaware what the engineers had planned and proceeded with a normal direct voice séance.
Eventually a trumpet, ringed with luminous paint, lifted into the air.
It circled the sitters and tapped each one lightly on the head in greeting.
Soon voices built up through the trumpet. Communicators identified themselves – and were recognized – as the sitters’ “dead” relatives and friends.
Occasionally they asked the spirit voices to speak into mike one, but says Stevens, it never occurred to them to suggest they talk into the other microphones.
The séance was interrupted by a voice over the control room loudspeaker. “Are these what you call spirit voices?” asked a cynical engineer.
The trumpet fell to the floor. Several minutes of oppressive silence followed.
Suddenly a man’s resonant voice “seemed to pop out of space in front of us, directly above mike one.” writes Stevens.
They could still see the phosphorescent ring of the trumpet on the floor. This was independent voice.
In a brisk business-like manner, the spirit communicator expressed interest in the experiment.
The sitters asked what he meant. He said he was referring to the engineers’ conditions.
“We think they have worked out a very interesting testing procedure for us on their equipment.”
A voice from the control room asked who was speaking.
The communicator moved in close to mike one and said he was an engineer in the spirit ‘world.
Together with a couple of colleagues, he told the earthly technicians he would like to collaborate in making the important recording.
He added: “We have a definite plan in mind for your tests. We are perfectly willing to meet any conditions you set up, or make any demonstration you have in mind … if it is within our power. Just let us know what you would like to have me do.”
The control room voice asked: “Do you think you could speak to us over one of those microphones located up at the ceiling?”
Immediately, the engineer heard the communicator say, “How’s this?” It came from mike two on the ceiling!
The spirit engineer added, “Does it any difference to you which microphone I use up here?”
The shocked control room operators listened in amazed silence.
“Is this all right?” asked the eager communicator once more.
“Yes … yes, that’s fine”, the engineer replied. “Would you mind lowering your voice a little? We have no volume control on that line.” The spirit voice apologized at a normal level.
The control room asked if he could now speak from mike three on the other side of the room.
Before the request was even completed, the communicator’s voice came over on the other ceiling microphone.
As before, it was answering from within inches of the mike. It had travelled across the room in a matter of a second.
The puzzled sitters listened to this in silence. Then one asked the engineers if they were ready with their experiment.
“It’s all over as far as we’re concerned”, came the control room reply.
They began to talk among themselves, but the spirit voice interrupted them. It was speaking at mike one, on the floor.
The communicator politely suggested to the technicians that if they had finished their tests, “We have a demonstration or two we would like to show you.”
Without waiting for an answer the voice explained he would make a complete circuit of the three microphones while speaking a short, simple sentence.
An engineer yelled, “Go!” Speaking at normal conversational pace the voice said, “I am now making a complete circuit of all three microphones and am now back at number one.”
The technicians followed the voice as it progressed around the loudspeakers.
“As revealed later,” says Stevens, “that voice had moved at such incredible speed between mikes it sounded as if it had been recorded on one mike.”
The communicator then introduced a colleague, a “one-time research engineer in the science of sound.”
This new spirit speaker said evidence had been given that the communicators were not earthly but that they were “surviving personalities speaking to you from another dimension.”
He continued with an offer to show that spirit voices could give a sound performance beyond earthly scope.
He explained that he was talking at the normal level for a male human being, around 300 cycles.
Then he asked the engineers to listen as he moved his voice slowly up the scale of sound frequencies in an unbroken flow.
Stevens likened the achievement to the “glissando of a musical instrument, from a resonant baritone to a bright tenor, to a soprano.” Through it all the spirit voice never stopped speaking.
The communicator announced that his voice was now the 1,100 cycle level, which was about the highest point the human voice can articulate.
He then increased the cycle frequency until it was beyond the range of earthly hearing.
As the pitch soared he gave the levels 3,000 and 5,000, with relevant remarks, until the only audible sound was similar to the twittering of a bird, though the words could still be understood.
Eventually his commentary became a thread of sound like “an incredibly distant radio signal.”
The control room loudspeaker interrupted the silence.
“We know that none of you could have done that”, said an engineer.
Repeating the test the communicator descended through the frequency cycles.
His voice deepened to “a bass-profundo and on down to the lowest reaches of an orchestral string bass.”
He paused to explain that he was 100 cycles below where the human vocal chords can enunciate recognisable words.
Continuing to speak clearly his voice slid further down the scale until it sounded like a “giant mumbling at the bottom of a well.”
It faded into a swishing sound, “like the lowest note on the longest pipe in a giant organ.” Then it vanished.
The silence was interrupted by the original spirit engineer’s voice.
He thanked the medium, sitters and recording staff for collaborating in the experiment and offered to co-operate in future tests. The historic séance was over.
A few days later Dr Frank Black delivered the records to the ASPR as promised.
But Stevens ends with this comment: “This séance and its records made little impression in official circles.
“Only the engineers in the control room were in a position to testify to the reality of the discarnate voices.
“But they, like so many others, were not about to go on record officially.
“So one of the technically best test cases for the reality of spirit voice phenomena went officially unconfirmed.”
Although this séance took place over 75 years ago it has never been equalled or bettered.
In spite of his critics the name of William Cartheuser will rank alongside the great physical mediums of the past.
Are these records still available at the ASPR?
They should be in their archives at least.