Stead, William T. (1849–1912) One of the greatest crusading journalists of the late 19th century, and also one of the most vocal supporters of Spiritualism. W. T. Stead promoted spirit photography, championed the causes of various mediums and established the “Julia Bureau” for communications between the bereaved and their loved ones.
Stead was a very religious man. Born in 1849 to a Methodist minister and his wife, he took his faith quite personally, usually referring to God as the Senior Partner. He embraced spiritualism totally on faith as well.
Supremely self-confident and imbued with the 19thcentury British conviction of mission, Stead envisioned himself as a crusader for God fighting the devil. He first grabbed public attention in 1880 as the editor of Northern Echo in Darlington, England, speaking out against Turkey’s atrocities against the Bulgarians.
While he was in Darlington, Stead had the first of several premonitions that led him to believe he stood in the Senior Partner’s favor. On New Year’s Day 1880, he prophesied that before the year was out he would be working on a newspaper in London. By midsummer, the Pall Mall Gazette changed editors to one more sympathetic to Stead’s positions (it had been pro-Turkey), and the new editor, John Morley, offered Stead the post of assistant editor.
Three years later, Stead had his second premonition. While on vacation with his wife on the Isle of Wight, he heard a voice tell him that by March 16, 1894 editor John Morley would leave the paper and Stead would be the Gazette’s new editor. Stead understood the prophecy to mean Morley would enter Parliament. By February 24, Morley became an MP when his local representative died suddenly, and Stead assumed the editorship.
In 1885, Stead wrote a sensational exposé of child prostitution and white slavery in England. In an article entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” Stead reported how he had purchased a 13-year-old girl from her mother and taken her to Paris. Crowds stormed the paper’s offices to buy every copy of the issue. Clergymen denounced Stead as obscene. Members of Parliament debated the question and finally passed legislation outlawing the practice, which had been Stead’s aim all along.
But opponents of the legislation, many of whom were sometime users of child prostitutes, pounced upon Stead’s failure to get a receipt for the five pounds paid for the girl. Her father, truthfully, claimed no knowledge of the transaction. Stead was arrested and convicted of abduction and sentenced to two months in Holloway Gaol. While there, he maintained a constant correspondence with his well-wishers, maintaining that whatever the future brought, all would be right if man humbly followed God’s will. To Stead, every venture was a crusade; he also claimed responsibility for sending the illfated General Gordon to Khartoum and for supporting Prime Minister William Gladstone’s plans to strengthen the British army.
Stead attended his first Séance in 1881 and dabbled in Spiritualism without committing himself. In 1888, he met Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Russian mystic and cofounder of the Theosophical Society, through a joint friend, Madame Olga Novikoff, the unofficial envoy for Russia in London. Stead wrote that Blavatsky both attracted and repelled him, but he was fascinated by Theosophy.
When her book The Secret Doctrine came out, Blavatsky sent a copy to Stead for review. A great feminist, Stead passed the task to Annie Besant, who occasionally wrote book reviews for the Gazette. She begged Stead to meet Blavatsky; subsequently she became a major figure in the Theosophical Society, and a successor to Blavatsky.
Stead loved women and ardently supported their rights and causes. They adored him. He was devoted to his wife and six children, but she detested his fl amboyant, free-spending ways and grew less interested in sex as time went on. He turned to Madame Novikoff, whom he met in 1877, and had a passionate affair for two years. Stead, William T. 475 He broke it off and returned to his wife, but he remained close friends with Novikoff. Some of his friends attributed his phenomenal energy to frustrated sexual urge; many sexual metaphors color his writing. In any case, Stead pursued nothing halfway.
By 1890, Stead had left the Pall Mall Gazette and now edited his own paper, the monthly Review of Reviews. During that year he met a young American journalist named Julia Ames, editor of The Woman’s Union Signal in Chicago. They spent time at his office and in the garden of his Wimbledon home discussing many things, principally religion. She died the next year.
But their talks seemed to tip Stead’s faith to Spiritualism. The Christmas 1891 issue of the Review was Real Ghost Stories, followed by More Ghost Stories the next year. Stead warned his readers to be careful of dabbling in the supernatural or occult arts, lest those not level-headed or reverential be exposed to the threat of Possession. He put the case for ghosts in terms of personal testimony, saying that as many people had seen Apparitions as scientists had seen microbes. Ghosts, then, could be assimilated into modern thought, and Stead was all for practical modernity.
He told of conversations with a woman who claimed to travel in her “Thought Body” (astral form) and his ideas about photographing her in this form. In 1892 he developed a talent for Automatic Writing, or, as he called it, letting others use his hand. Stead immediately saw the potential for this faculty in obtaining interviews, a journalism technique he pioneered, either with the living or the dead. He claimed to receive letters from various persons that way, although some, like the Countess of Warwick, Stead’s friend and the Prince of Wales’ mistress, disliked his communicating with her in that manner.
His interviews with the dead were a sensation. He talked to Empress Catherine the Great about the Russian situation and heard from the late prime minister Gladstone regarding the British budget of 1909. All these efforts were attributed to the intercession of Julia Ames, the American journalist, who had come through to Stead in 1892 and organized his spiritualist affairs.
Julia was Stead’s principal Control and the most frequent user of his hand. She helped him establish his telepathic interviews and was the principal contributor to his latest publishing venture, the quarterly review of psychic literature called Borderland begun in 1893. Stead used Borderland to publish his “Letters from Julia,” in which Julia communicated with Stead about a variety of subjects. Among other things, Julia chastised non-believers for failing to see how the spirits could show the living the way to communion with God. Borderland lasted until 1897.
In 1907, Stead’s oldest son, Willie, died, bringing the urgency of contact home to Stead in a personal way. For years, since 1894, Julia had been urging him to set up a bureau wherein the bereaved could reach their loved ones on the Other Side. Stead needed at least one thousand pounds to start such a project and as usual was out of money. By Christmas 1908, Julia predicted Stead would get the money from America, and she was right. William Randolph Hearst hired him as a special correspondent at one thousand pounds a year, and Julia’s Bureau opened on April 24, 1909.
The Bureau operated systematically. Every petitioner first filled out an application, giving name, address, the name of the deceased, the relationship while on earth, and certifi cation that the deceased wanted to speak to the living as much as the living wanted to speak to the deceased. The applicant also had to certify that he or she had read the pamphlet “Julia’s Bureau and Borderland Library” and the “Letters from Julia.” The completed form was then submitted to the director, Stead’s daughter Estelle, who decided if the applicant could proceed first to a psychometrist (a psychic who reads objects) and then to Julia’s secretaries No. 1 and No. 2, both automatists. If, as occasionally happened, the psychometrist and the automatists differed on an applicant, petition was made to Julia herself in council, and her decision was final.
After passing these preliminaries, the applicant filled in Form H, which outlined the tests which would be considered satisfactory evidence for communication, including personal details such as age, sex, description of death, names of relatives, pet names, places names, incidental details and figures of speech. This form was sealed in an envelope. Then the applicant filled in Form D, which informed the Bureau that the applicant had filled in Form H. The applicant had to agree to mail in the sealed Form H along with annotated reports of the messages received from the three sensitives.
Once the paperwork was complete, the psychometrist and the two automatists began. Each sitter was accompanied by a stenographer. No payment was paid to the mediums, as all wages were paid by the Bureau. At the end of the first three months, the Bureau had processed more than 100 cases, confirming Stead’s belief in the possibilities of spirit communication. The Bureau was perpetually short of funds and finally closed in 1912. If it had lasted just a little longer, the thousands of bereaved from World War I would probably have made it a successful endeavor.
Stead accepted the concept of the “Other Side” without question. He detested the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for its niggling of what he considered spiritual truths, and he denied the possibility of fraud. He once said that he would rather die in a workhouse than believe anyone would intentionally deceive him.
Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stead was ready to support any psychic phenomena, including Spirit Photography. One of his proudest possessions was a photograph taken by Richard Boursnell in 1902 showing Stead seated in front of a figure later identified as the Boer commander Piet Botha, who had died in 1899. Stead, a staunch supporter of the Boers in South Africa, claimed no one in England knew of that particular Boer general, even though a report of Botha’s death appeared in the Daily Graphic of October 24, 1899.
Throughout his life, Stead’s premonitions and stories often involved great disasters at sea. In 1893, Stead wrote a story entitled “From the Old World to the New” in which a large ocean liner sinks in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. In a 1909 address to the Cosmos Club, in which he bitterly attacked the SPR, Stead compared their methods to rescuers who instead of throwing a drowning man a life preserver would demand proof of his identity before saving him. In his story, the drowning man was Stead himself. As early as 1886 Stead wrote an edito rial in the Pall Mall Gazette predicting disaster if ocean liners crossed the ocean without enough lifeboats.
In 1912, Stead was invited to speak at Carnegie Hall on April 21 about world peace. Before sailing for America, he felt that something would happen, he believed for good, as a result of the trip. But that good would not happen in his lifetime. Fulfilling his earlier sea visions, Stead’s was one of 1,600 lives lost in the sinking of the Titanic on April 14.
But that was not the last of W. T. Stead. Three weeks after his death he appeared in his office at Mowbray House to his daughter, his secretary, and some other women. They claimed his face shown radiantly as he called out, “All I told you is true!” Through the medium Mrs. Foster Turner, Stead predicted the horrors of World War I in February 1914, six months before hostilities began. Doyle also heard from Stead, who called Doyle’s spiritualist writings the “Review of Divine Reviews,” a play on his earlier journal. Stead told Doyle that he and Cecil Rhodes, their colleague and fellow Empire-builder, had looked into Christ’s eyes and that Christ had told Stead to tell Arthur his work was holy—that Doyle’s message was His.
- Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
- Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism Vol. I & II. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England 1850–1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.