When it comes to funerals and burials, tradition,
superstition, fears, and societal norms have resulted in some rather intriguing endeavors. Some of the most interesting are those associated with attempts to prove the existence of life after death, or attempts to contact the dearly departed. In the late 19th century, and first decades of the 20th century, a number of leading intellectuals as well as men and women of science devoted time and resources to these quests.
In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle, the author best known for the creation of Sherlock Holmes, joined the British Society for Psychical Research. This organization had formed in 1892 to investigate claims of spiritualism and paranormal phenomena. Doyle was in good company as the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, William James, the philosopher, economist Henry Sidgwick, poet F.W.H Meyers, Alfred Russell Wallace, the naturalist, and Williams Crookes, a leading scientist were also purported to be members of the society. Doyle became convinced that ‘thought transference’ existed and in 1917, gave his first public lecture on the subject of scientific spiritualism. Books, articles and public appearances throughout the British empire as well as in America followed. He and associates from the society also participated in seances organized to assist families in the hope of contacting loved ones lost in battle. He became, for lack of a better word, obsessed with the subject and abandoned the writing of fiction, including Sherlock Holmes stories, and dedicated all resources to study of the paranormal.
Thomas Edison, the man credited with moving the world into the light with development of a practical electric light bulb, was also intrigued by the supernatural. He firmly believed that the essence of life was indestructible, and that the “quantity could never be increased or decreased.” His research and experimentation led him to theorize that our personalities have a physicality, made of tiny “entities” similar to the modern view of atomic structure. Additionally he opined that a personality based residue of loose memories and thoughts which contained the essence of a person survived death, and that if this residue existed it would be a part of the atmosphere that surrounded us. This led to experimentation with various devises that he hoped would record traces in a manner similar to the recording of human voices on a phonograph.
Even though spirituality and occult studies were popular subjects at the time, for Edison his work was strictly scientific evaluation. As a result, he was incensed when in a 1921 edition of Literary Digest referred to one his endeavors as a ‘spirit phone’ and lumped an article about his experimentation with features on interpreting dreams and mind reading. Countering this perception, Edison in an interview with American Magazine, criticized the unscientific qualities of a psychic medium’s methods, which he called crude and childish. Some people, he said, “permit themselves to become, in a sense, hypnotized into thinking that their imaginings are actualities.”
Edison’s experiments with spirituality are, today, less than historic footnotes. They are also a rather unusual chapter in the life of one of America’s most prolific inventors.