top of page
  • Writer's pictureCat Ward


Let's take a little trip back in time, to the Victorian era. Many of the things that are so taken for granted now didn't exist then..and many of the concepts and notions so commonly discussed these days were still relatively in their infancy, and had yet to be explored to a thorough degree. This includes the concept of telepathy, a word which wasn't even coined until 1882, by the way..

It was partly from a most unlikely source, a Victorian-era parlour game, that the possibility of telepathy was further brought to public attention, and subsequently further into the consideration, of a then newly-formalised field of study; that of psychical research.

That game- at first a source of amusement for the general populace, and later a source of curiosity for those who had begun to lay the initial foundations of research into the unexplained- was called the "willing-game"..and it was quite a popular one in that long-ago day and age.

It just so happened, though, that its popularity coincided with the dawn of psychical research as a field of study..and eventually, through mention of the game in the newspapers and periodicals of the time, it attracted the attention of the founding fathers of the field- a very lucky coincidence indeed.

The willing-game first started gaining popularity in the 1870's, and the way in which it was played was quite person in a group was chosen as the one who would be "willed", and the remainder of the group were those who would do the "willing". The person chosen to be willed would leave the room, and the remaining group- to use a term familiar to many who have an interest in psychical research, we could perhaps call those the "agents"- would settle upon a task that the willed person would have to perform upon their return. To use yet another rather familiar term we could perhaps call the willed individual the "percipient".

This task, chosen by the agents, could mean that the percipient would perhaps have to locate a hidden item, draw a figure upon a blackboard, or perform a particular action, and it was decided upon when the aforementioned percipient was out of the range of sight and hearing of the agents. The agents would then silently concentrate their will, for a short while, upon mentally visualising the task, action, or item they were going to attempt to "will" to the percipient.

When the percipient returned to the room, one of the agents would lay their hands upon them in some way- a light grasp at the waist or of the hand of the percipient, or a hand laid upon their forehead or on their shoulder- and would attempt to convey the task to the percipient, without word or gesture.

It all sounds simple, and perhaps rather amusing, yes? perhaps a little rainy-day entertainment for those who existed in a time before television, Netflix, or social media.. But this seemingly simple game would soon lead some very well-respected minds to some further considerations, and these would eventually contribute in some way towards shaping one of the directions of study in the field of psychical research.


The willing-game caught the attention of psychical research via correspondence between the (eventual) founders of the field as a formalised area of study, and a man who would, several years further down the track, become one of the prominent members of a society consisting of those who were amongst the pioneers in that field; Professor (and later Sir) William F. Barrett.

Barrett (1844-1925) was an English Physicist, and had a long and distinguished career including positions held as Science Master at the London International College, assistant at the Royal Institution, professor of science at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, and later a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was knighted in 1912.

Well before that honour was bestowed upon him, Professor Barrett was part of a conference, held in London in January 1882, to discuss the possibility of establishing an organisation to conduct investigations, using scientific methodology, into such phenomena as thought-reading, clairvoyance, precognition, hauntings, apparitions, and other psychical phenomena, such as that claimed by mediums.

The following month (somewhat unsurprisingly) saw the formation of the S.P.R.

Barrett, whilst considered an important early member, was only active in the S.P.R. in England for a short time- he went on to relocate to America, and would there become a persuasive influence in the formation of the American Society for Psychical Research (A.S.P.R.), which occurred in 1884.

Edmund Gurney, one of the founders of the S.P.R., mentions Barrett's experiments with the willing-game in one of the landmark books on psychical research (indeed, it's still considered one of the classics in the field); the fascinating two-volume work "Phantasms of the Living", published in 1886- a mere 4 years after the S.P.R. was formed.

Gurney writes of Barrett's role in bringing the willing-game to broader attention

(Gurney, Myers, Podmore 1886, vol.1, pp.13-14);

"The dawn of the discovery must be referred to the years 1875 and 1876. it was in the autumn of the latter year that our colleague, Professor W.F. Barrett, brought under the notice of the British Association, at Glasgow, a cautious statement of some remarkable facts which he had encountered, and a suggestion of the expediency of ascertaining how far recognised physiological laws would account for them. The facts themselves were connected with mesmerism; but the discussion in the Press to which the paper gave rise led to a considerable correspondence, in which Professor Barrett found his first hints of a faculty of thought-transference existing independently of the specific mesmeric rapport.

That these hints happened to be forthcoming, just at the right moment, was a piece of great good fortune, and was due primarily to a circumstance quite unconnected with science, and from which serious results would scarcely have been anticipated- the invention of the willing-game."

Barrett, in his 1911 book "Psychical Research" , describes one of his initial experiments with the game; quite possibly one of the very ones which first aroused his curiosity. Barrett writes (Barrett 1911, pp.45-46);

"Here, for example, are some experiments made when I was staying with my friend, the late Mr. Lawson Tate, the famous surgeon, in the Easter of 1877: The subject, a medical man, having left the room and placed himself beyond eye and ear shot, we agreed that on his return he should move the fire-screen and double it back. Recalling the subject, my host, the surgeon, put his hands round the subject's waist and silently willed what should be done. After a few moments of hesitation he did exactly what was mentally wished.

Among other experiments we desired the subject should turn off the gas tap of one out of several gas brackets. This was accurately done, no word being spoken, only the subject was lightly grasped as before. Here it is difficult to understand how the 'muscular sense' would lead to the raising of the hands and correct performance of the wish."

There will be further mention of "muscular sense" shortly, but for now I should introduce the other important players in the "game"..


Gurney also makes mention of perhaps the very first person to give greater consideration to the willing-game as being more than just a game;

(Gurney, Myers, Podmore 1886, vol.1, p.15);

"Meanwhile similar observations were being made in America.

America, indeed, was the original home of the 'willing' entertainment; and it is to an American, Dr. McGraw, that the credit belongs of having been the first (as far as I am aware) to detect in it the possible germ of something new to science. In the Detroit Review of Medicine for August, 1875, Dr. McGraw gave a clear account of the ordinary physiological process- 'the perception by a trained operator of involuntary and unconscious muscular movement' ; and then proceeded as follows:

'It seemed to me that there were features in these exhibitions which could not be satisfactorily explained on the hypothesis of involuntary muscular action, for we are required to believe a man could unwillingly, and in spite of himself, give information by unconscious and involuntary signs that he could not give under the same circumstances by voluntary and conscious action..It seems to me there is a hint towards the possibility of the nervous system of one individual being used by the active will of another to accomplish certain simple motions.' "

Unfortunately, due to the proliference of well-known McGraws in existence (damn you Dr Phil), I was unable to find out anything further about Dr. McGraw, aside from a brief mention in volume 1 of the S.P.R.'s Proceedings, where he is noted as a "Dr. T.A. McGraw" (P.S.P.R. vol.1, p.15).

Further research showed only that there was a Dr. Theo A McGraw listed as practising in Detroit during the relevant time period..perhaps that's our man..

Dr. McGraw, it seems, had become curious about whether there was perhaps more to the processes and outcomes involved in the willing-game, due to having witnessed the stage performance of the game by an American "thought-reader" called Mr. Corey.

In 1875, Dr. McGraw published the paper I mentioned previously, and gave fair consideration to not only the possibility of "muscular sense" being an answer as to Corey's success..but due to his own experiments, McGraw stated that there may also be something else occurring.

McGraw's summary statements were re-published in the P.S.P.R. (vol.1, pp. 15-16).

He states (regarding Corey's feats):

"..He cannot detect any kind of an idea in such a way as to express it first by speech. Thus he cannot tell directly the date of a coin, nor can he discover it in any other manner than by choosing out the figures which represent it from among others on a table."

McGraw goes on to say that it is obvious that most of Corey's actions could be explained by "the perception by a trained operator of involuntary and unconscious muscular movements". In other words, those feats were possibly due to "muscular sense".

Regarding his own experiments, McGraw showed that this was indeed a possibility to be taken into account, stating:

"I myself experienced this tendency to involuntary action, when trying to carry out fairly one of Mr. Corey's tests. The object of the search in this case was the date of an old coin, and the operator (the percipient) was trying to discover it by choosing from among the figures on the table those of the proper date. While keeping my attention fixed on a certain figure, I became all at once aware that I was actually trying to force the hand of my associate towards it, so powerfully did the thought impel to the correspondent action."

However, McGraw did not seem to feel that all feats achieved in the willing-game were due to muscular sense, adding:

"It seemed to me that there were features in these exhibitions that could not be satisfactorily explained on the hypothesis of involuntary muscular action, for we are required to believe a man could unwillingly, and in spite of himself, give information by unconscious and involuntary signs that he could not give under the same circumstances by voluntary and conscious action.."

"..It seems to me there is a hint towards the possibility of the nervous system of one individual being used by the active will of another to accomplish certain simple motions. There would be nothing inherently impossible in this when we recollect the strong similarities that exist between nervous and electrical forces; and as we know it is possible to generate induced currents of electricity in coils of wire that are near to a primary electric coil; so we can imagine the nervous current to be continued into (induced in?) another body and act there upon the automatic centres of action."

One thing of note in Dr. McGraw's statement is his seeming reference to telepathy, before the word had even been invented..indeed, that word didn't enter the jargon of psychical research until 1882, as I said earlier in this piece- and it was one of the S.P.R. founders who was responsible for that; F.W.H. Myers.

Before Myers' new term, telepathy had been known previously as "thought-reading", and then later as "thought-transference". The early S.P.R. consisted of numerous committees (in fact it still does), and one of those was the "committee on thought-reading" (which would soon become the "committee on thought-transference").

If we were to substitute McGraw's wording of "nervous system" in his statement for the word "mind", or perhaps better still the word "unconscious", it seems the good doctor was possibly on the right track- he perhaps was describing telepathy, before the term was even coined.

There are, of course, the usual questions to be asked regarding the nature of what I've recounted..but there's still more to the story before we go into that; for instance, the experiments with the willing-game conducted by a few highly-respected S.P.R. members, whose names will probably ring a bell- Mr Gurney, Mr. Myers, Mr. and Mrs. Sidgwick..and the man who first brought it to their attention; Professor W.F. Barrett.


The founding fathers of the S.P.R. had begun to pay greater attention to the willing-game since professor Barrett's and Dr. McGraw's statements had become known to them..and those brilliant early minds decided to turn their collective attention to ascertaining the possibility of the existence (or lack thereof) of thought-transference regarding the processes and outcomes involved in the game.

The best-known subjects of the willing-game experiments were a family of six; the Creery family, consisting of a father (a well-respected clergyman who was, according to Gurney, "of unblemished character"), and his five daughters, who ranged in age from 10-17. Included in the experiments also was one of the family's maids.

Reverend Creery had been conducting his own willing-game experiments, since October 1880, with his daughters and the maid, (these are described in Phantasms of the Living, on p.21) and his curiosity as to the outcome of those experiments led him to initiate correspondence with those in the field of psychical research. The rest, as they say, is history..and the subsequent experiments were well-documented in the S.P.R.'s Proceedings- they can be found in the reports of the Committee on Thought-Transference (P.S.P.R. vol.1, pp.14-30, 71-78).

There are too many trials (hundreds, in fact) that were conducted upon the Creery sisters for the outcomes of each to be documented here..and Edmund Gurney, F.W.H. Myers, Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick, and of course Professor Barrett, were all involved in conducting them. You can find tables detailing some of the results of these trials in both "Phantasms of the Living" (pp.23-28), and in the Proceedings (vol.1, pp.22-26)

Over the course of these experiments, the controls (which were perhaps rather loose by modern standards to begin with) were refined, so that on occasion the percipient's calls were sometimes made from behind closed doors, the action willed was known only to the investigators, and no physical contact between percipient and agent was made.

Unfortunately for the investigators in the case, evidence of fraud was eventually discovered on the part of two of the sisters, and also the maid, in the form of visual or auditory cues given by them during experiments when the family members acting as agents were aware of the action that was to be willed to the percipient. This is detailed in volume 5 of the Proceedings (P.S.P.R. vol.5, p.269).

This issue was addressed by Gurney, on behalf of the committee, in the same volume of the Proceedings..and it was made very much known that once the investigators cottoned on to the fact that signals were being given, and a code had been discerned by them, they set about figuring it out- and were successful in doing so. The sisters and maid subsequently confessed, and Gurney summarises the committee's thoughts on the matter (P.S.P.R. vol 5, p. 270);

"The use of the visual code was very gratuitous on the part of the sisters, since it had been explained to them that we did not attach any scientific value to the experiments in which they acted as agent and percipient in sight of each other.."

"..The experiments in which the codes were used were intended merely as amusement and encouragement with a view to increase the chance of success in the more difficult ones- which were all complete failures. The account which was given as to the earlier experiments, conducted under similar conditions, is that signals were very rarely used; and not on specifically successful occasions, but on occasions of failure, when it was feared that visitors would be disappointed.

But of course the recent detection must throw discredit on the results of all previous trials in which one or more of the sisters shared in the agency. How far the proved willingness to deceive can be held to affect the experiments on which we relied, where collusion was excluded, must of course depend on the degree of stringency of the precautions taken against trickery of other sorts- as to which every reader will form his own opinion."


Gurney made a very important allusion as to the possible motivation for the Creery sisters' trickery, which actually makes a great deal of sense if we look at that motivation from a sociological viewpoint.

These were children, engaged in what at first seemed like a fun game, but which very soon became a serious experiment- and a lengthy one at that. As has been shown in some other E.S.P. experiments, the longer the percipient is engaged in repeated trials, the greater the decline in their success.

Given the young age of the sisters, and the fact that they were in the company of some eminent researchers, and given also their seeming decline in motivation (perhaps due to boredom?), their fraud becomes almost understandable. The game was no longer fun to them..but they did not wish to disappoint their visitors..


I feel most of my usual questions are perhaps not necessary in the case of the willing-game. Dr. McGraw gives an accurate description of the process involved in muscular sense in his statement..but in cases where no physical contact was made between agent and percipient, this could be ruled out as a "how" and a "why"..which brings us back to merely the "what if"; the possibility of telepathy..

Can the Creery sisters' tricks completely discount the results of each and every experiment conducted around the willing-game, including those performed by others? I don't feel it should be so.

During my research for this piece, I found a rather applicable, albeit not directly related, refutation of that mindset, in the form of a 1958 quote from the philosopher Curt John (C.J.) Ducasse (J.S.E. vol.30 no.2, p.170);

"allegations of detection of fraud, or of malobservation, or of misinterpretation of what was observed, or of hypnotically induced hallucinations, have to be scrutinized as closely and as critically as must the testimony for the reality of the phenomena. For there is likely to be just as much wishful thinking, prejudice, emotion, snap judgment, naivete, and intellectual dishonesty on the side of orthodoxy, of skepticism, and of conservatism, as on the side of hunger for and of belief in the marvelous. The emotional motivation for irresponsible disbelief is, in fact, probably even stronger- especially in scientifically educated persons whose pride of knowledge is at stake- than is in other persons the motivation for irresponsible belief."

Was there fraud involved in some of the Creery sisters' actions? Undoubtedly. But do those instances discount every other experiment and subsequent result? Not necessarily. If we set our minds completely against the possibility of telepathy being present in all experiments due to those instances of fraud, we are creating a double standard by excluding the possibility that it could be present in some.

To use an analogy here, let's go for an "oldie but a goodie"; Schrodinger's Cat..

If the "cat" in this case is the possibility of telepathy, and the "box" in which it exists in its alive/dead state (until that box is opened) is the exploration of that possibility, would we, in taking a dismissive mindset, not be refusing to acknowledge that that cat could be either alive or dead, and that it thus possibly exists as both? Not all phenomena in the willing-game are due to telepathy, assuredly..but perhaps some are. Therefore, the cat exists as alive, and dead..It could be either, depending on the experimental circumstances and controls..and on our willingness to open the box.

And it was, after all, the steadfast refusal by the S.P.R. investigators to consider the "cat" completely dead that led to opening the "box" of further research around telepathy- which formed the foundation for future experimentation such as Zener cards, Ganzfeld experiments, and remote viewing..

in conclusion..we will never know what the case is for sure, if the cat is alive or dead..until we open the box!

If you've any thoughts to share here, please feel free to do so in comments!

59 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page