Charles Darwin and his Father Debunk Spiritualists and Psychics

January 21, 2010

Charles Darwin is of course best known for developing the theory of evolution and writing On the Origin of Species . But he and his father were scientists and skeptics to the core.

In a letter dated March 19, Darwin had written of the gullibility of physician James Manby Gully, who had treated Darwin's father: "Dr. Gully was a spiritualist & believer in clairvoyance. He bothered my father for some time to have a consultation with a clairvoyant, who was staying at Malvern, and was reputed to be able to see the insides of people & discover the real nature of their ailments."

Darwin's father finally agreed to meet with the self-proclaimed psychic who had so impressed the gullible Dr. Gully. But, he insisted, he wanted to test the psychic's power for himself. "Accordingly, in going to the interview he put a banknote in a sealed envelope. After being introduced to the lady he said 'I have heard a great deal of your powers of reading concealed writings & I should like to have evidence myself: now in this envelope there is a banknote—if you will read the number I shall be happy to present it to you.'" It was a very simple test: if the psychic could see through a patient's clothing and flesh to diagnose diseases, surely she could see through a simple, paper-thin envelope and determine the denomination of a bank note.

The psychic refused, saying she was insulted at being asked to prove her amazing abilities: "The clairvoyante answered scornfully 'I have a maid-servant at home who can do that.'" Though she couldn't use her powers to read the contents of an envelope, she proceeded to do her "medical intuitive" act.


#1 Aydin (Guest) on Thursday January 21, 2010 at 3:52pm

Any idea how many different denominations of banknotes they had in England back then? It would be risky to run a test like this in the U.S. With only 6 common denominations of paper money, a person’s chances of guessing the value of a hidden bill would be 1 out of 6.

#2 Peter Brand (Guest) on Sunday February 07, 2010 at 11:48pm

I think he meant for her to read the serial number.

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