Mars and Spiritualism: How Psychics Attempted to Contact Mars

By Dr. Emily Simpson

Percival Lowell’s theories of Mars and its canals inspired the imagination and ingenuity of countless individuals of his time and beyond.  But how “beyond” his theories reached could be a matter altogether outside the scope of planetary astronomy.  Inspired by Lowell’s descriptions of advanced Martian civilizations, a number of his readers set out to devise ways to contact Mars.  The period when Lowell produced his most popular works, at the turn of the twentieth century, was also a peak time for spiritualism and psychical research.  The science of spiritualism, not thought of as a pseudoscience or a fringe subject at the time, seemed to be destined to explain the unexplainable and achieve the seemingly impossible here on Earth.  Perhaps, some thought, spiritualist methods and psychic talents could be used to unlock the secrets of the solar system as well. 

One of the most detailed cases of a spiritual medium who set her second sight on the Red Planet was a Swiss psychic who went by the name Hélène Smith.  We receive most of our information about Smith from psychologist and psychical researcher Theodore Flournoy.  Flournoy first met Smith when he attended one of her séances.  He became intrigued by the abilities that she claimed and by her exceptional beauty.  Flournoy attended many more of the young woman’s séances and psychic sittings.  As her career as a medium developed, Smith began going into psychic trances and travelling telepathically to Mars.  There she met many Martians, observed their daily lives, and, as she claimed, became fluent in the universal Martian language.  Flournoy was skeptical of Smith’s journeys as well as her skills as a medium.  But a great number of his readers took his account, published in From India to the Planet Mars (1899), at face value.  Many believed that the young woman could in fact travel to Mars in her mind and talk with its inhabitants. 

Automatic writing in Martian language produced be Hélène Smith during a séance, published in Theodore Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars

In 1909, another spiritual medium named Princess D’Antuni claimed to have a similar ability to contact Martians through psychic trance.  Without spiritualism, according to D’Antuni, science would never obtain a full understanding of Mars.  As she described to the Los Angeles Times, standard scientific instruments were “of no practical use” when it came to communicating with other planets.  Instead, psychic methods were “the best and safest option.”  D’Antuni’s latter point, at least, rings true.  The activities of these two mediums, and those like them, were quite safe compared to many of the other attempts made to contact Mars.  The same year, 1909, American astronomer David Peck Todd attempted communication with Mars by taking flight in a hot air balloon loaded with telegraphic equipment.  He did not communicate with Martians either and likely had a lot worse time than he would have at a Martian séance.

Martian city visited by Hélène Smith, published in Theodore Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars

Robert Burnham and His Celestial Handbook

By Kevin Schindler

The appeal of astronomy is both intellectual and aesthetic; it combines the thrill of exploration and discovery, the fun of sight-seeing, and the sheer pleasure of firsthand acquaintance with incredibly wonderful and beautiful things… So wrote longtime Flagstaff resident Robert Burnham, Jr., the author of one of the most prized astronomy books of our time. Burnham’s story is one of passion, persistence, and, ultimately, tragedy.

Robert Burham, Jr. was born in Chicago on June 16, 1931. His family moved to Arizona in 1940, settling in Prescott. At an early age Robert began a lifelong pursuit of studying the universe, collecting rare coins, amassing bookshelves full of rocks and minerals, and peering at the sky through telescopes—all while reading as much as he could on each subject.

Burnham and his sister. Courtesy Donna Courtney
Burnham in high school. Courtesy Donna Courtney

He graduated from Prescott High School in 1949 and two years later enlisted in the Air Force. After his four-year-tour finished, he returned home to Prescott and eventually took a job as a shipping clerk, though he continued his passion of studying the universe. It was at about this time that he began thinking about compiling an astronomy book like no other, one that comprehensively covered the science and mythology of all 88 constellations.

And so went Burnham’s life for several years—uninspiring job during the day, probing the depths of nature from Earth to outer space at night. And then one night in 1957 his life took a decided turn when he spotted a fuzzy patch of light through his telescope. This was a comet, and up to this day no one else had ever seen it before. He was not alone in detecting it, as two other observers independently discovered this new celestial nomad. News traveled fast and Burnham soon became a celebrity of sorts, lauded as the self-trained amateur astronomer from Prescott. None other than Senator Barry Goldwater visited Burnham and even gave the young man a family telescope that dated back to the 1800s.

Not long after, Burnham found himself in conversation with astronomer Henry Giclas of Lowell Observatory. Giclas had begun a program to study the movement of stars over time, a so-called proper motion survey, and hired Burnham to work on it. Soon he also moved into a cabin onsite. Burnham would spend the next 21 years living in that same cabin at Lowell Observatory, a short stroll from telescopes he could only dream of as a kid. No longer would he have to spend many of his waking hours at a hum drum job; he could now devote virtually all his waking hours to studying the universe. When not fulfilling his regular job duties of photographing the night sky and examining the resulting images, he jumped headfirst into his long-planned “Celestial Handbook.”

Burnham and Norm Thomas, 1964. Courtesy Thomas E. Vandekerkhove
Burnham at the 13-inch Pluto Discovery Telescope.

With the patience of Job, Burnham marched through the constellations and self-published his magnum opus in loose-leaf folders that the kids of Lowell staffers helped assemble. Eventually, with the vision of substantial royalty payments in mind, Burnham sold the rights to Dover. Little did he know that his life had reached its apex and soon would begin to spiral downward.

The proper motion survey ended in 1979 and Burnham was out of a job. After 21 years, he no longer enjoyed regular access to research telescopes, no longer had a home, no longer had a regular income. To many people this would have been a challenge but one they could conquer. To Burnham, this was almost a death sentence. As eloquent as Burnham was on paper, he was equally awkward in person. Exceptionally introverted—former Lowell Observatory Director Bob Millis calls Burnham the most shy person he ever met—Burnham was not one to go out into the world and start over. Without the regularity of his beloved work and the stability of his adopted lifetsyle, he was lost.

Burnham lived with his sister for a short time and then disappeared, with neither family nor friends knowing his whereabouts. A few years later, the son of one of Burnham’s closest Lowell colleagues was walking through Balboa Park in San Diego when he noticed a skinny, bearded man. As he drew near, he realized the man was Burnham. He learned that Burnham lived in bleak housing nearby, having never seen the riches he expected from the handbook royalties and making a minimal living by selling paintings of cats in the park.

In 1993, at the age of 61 and after suffering from a heart attack and other health maladies, Burnham died. His remains went to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery’s columbarium in San Diego. Burnham was a loner to the end: his name was misspelled on his grave marker and his family didn’t even find out he died until two years later.

While Burnham’s tragic life ended in obscurity, his beloved handbook lives on and is a staple in the library of thousands of astronomers, professional and amateur alike. Burnham chronicler Tony Ortega has called Burnham’s 2138-page handbook a real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide – “part travel guide, part history text, part encyclopedia, it’s like a handheld natural-history museum of the universe.”

In recent years, efforts have been made to honor Burnham. Amateur astronomers in Phoenix led an effort to create a plaque for him, and Lowell Observatory is now developing a new display highlighting his life and work. As part of this year’s National Astronomy Day, Lowell hosted a virtual discussion about the triumph and tragedy of Burnham with special guests Ortega, Burnham’s niece Donna Courtney, and renowned sky expert Brian Skiff. You can find it on our YouTube channel. In addition, here are some Burnham documents from the Lowell Observatory Archives.

Happy Birthday, Wrexie!

Wrexie Louise Leonard was born in Troy, Pennsylvania, on September 15, 1867 and later moved to Boston with her older sister, Laura.  She met Percival Lowell in Boston in 1893 and began working for him as a secretary.  On December 10, 1895, she joined Lowell and a party of astronomers to Africa in search of a suitable site on which to build Lowell’s proposed observatory.  After Lowell selected Flagstaff, Leonard accompanied him on his travels throughout the United States and Europe (including his visits to Arizona) until his death in 1916.

Leonard’s role as secretary was complex.  She handled the observatory’s accounts, keeping bank records in order and dispatching checks to V.M. Slipher (who paid observatory bills in Flagstaff) on Lowell’s orders.  Leonard herself took care of purchasing, which had to be done outside of Flagstaff. For example, she bought observatory stationery in Boston and furniture for the new Baronial Mansion (Lowell’s Flagstaff residence) in Chicago.  She also wrote speeches for Lowell, read publishing proofs for several staff members, including Lowell himself, and relayed orders from Lowell to various members of the staff while he was out of town. In addition to her work as secretary, Leonard joined Lowell in his observations of the planets and other astronomical objects. Her drawings and notes appear alongside his in many of the observation logbooks.

When Lowell died in 1916, his widow, Constance, promptly fired Leonard, who then returned to the East.  She was comfortable financially until 1929, when the stock market crashed.  She lived with a niece in New York for a time and eventually moved to Roxbury’s Trinity Church Home for the Aged.  Shortly before her death, she was moved to the hospital in Medfield, Massachusetts, where she died in 1937.

Find Wrexie’s digitized scrapbooks and drawings at our Women in Astronomy exhibit.

In Famous Footsteps

By Lauren Amundson

From Lowell Observatory’s earliest days, staff kept guestbooks to record the names of the many visitors who came to Mars Hill. These guestbooks are now preserved in the observatory’s archives, and they provide a fascinating glimpse of the astronomers, scientists, dignitaries, and others who made the trek to Lowell Observatory.

The first book contains entries from 1894 to 1938. Astronomers and scientists from other institutions make up a significant number of the visitors. Some of the more well-known guests included Edward Emerson Barnard, Bart Bok, William Wallace Campbell, John C. Duncan, Arthur Stanley Eddington, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, Edwin Hubble, Jan Oort, Henry Norris Russell, J.S. Plaskett, William W. Coblentz, and Samuel Boothroyd.

The signatures of politicians, authors, publishers, and other dignitaries also fill the guestbook’s pages. Author Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage) visited on April 24, 1913 and wrote in the comments, “A privilege to be cherished.”

Poet Carl Sandburg signed the guestbook on January 28, 1932, “Wandering minstrel who needs to know more of the stars.”

Other famous visitors included businessman and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (May 15, 1907); United States Senator Henry Fountain Ashurst (April 26, 1931); author William Tyler Olcott (December 8, 1929); and Dwight B. Heard, founder of the Heard Museum in Phoenix (August 29, 1924).

Our next project is to digitize this guestbook in its entirety and make it available online.

The Slipher Brothers

By Lauren Amundson

Hot on the heels of our Historic Buildings and Telescopes exhibit, we’re pleased to announce the addition of an online exhibit called The Slipher Brothers. It highlights the lives and careers of former Lowell Observatory astronomers and brothers, V.M. and E.C. Slipher. Focusing on their respective research interests and contributions to the astronomical and local communities, the exhibit features drawings, observation notes, photographs, documents, newspaper articles, and fun items from such as rare college yearbook entries and military draft cards.

E.C. was a prominent planetary photographer, known for his images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. He was also active in local and state government, serving on the Flagstaff City Council, as Mayor of Flagstaff, and in the 9th Arizona State Senate.

V.M. took measurements of the radial velocities of spiral nebulae (galaxies). He discovered the redshifts of the nebulae, which meant that they were moving away from Earth at a great speed (see One Shift, Two Shift…)

He served as the director of Lowell Observatory for many years, and he was involved in various business and real estate ventures in northern Arizona.

We’re proud to honor the brothers’ contributions and legacy with this exhibit.

Historic Buildings and Telescopes

By Lauren Amundson

We’re excited to debut our newest online exhibit, Lowell Observatory’s Historic Buildings and Telescopes. Adriana Duenas created the exhibit as part of her spring semester internship in the Lowell Observatory Archives. She researched the telescopes and buildings of our Mars Hill campus, digitized photos, and wrote the text.

The exhibit highlights the 24-inch Clark Telescope, Pluto Telescope, 18-inch Telescope (the first instrument Percival Lowell used at his new observatory), Slipher Building and Rotunda, 42-inch Lampland Telescope, and Percival Lowell’s Mausoleum. Each section features photos, documents, and drawings from our collections. Enjoy!

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Documenting COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things about our daily lives: work, play, shopping, even basic things like getting a haircut. Millions of people have been asked to stay in their homes and self-isolate to flatten the curve and curb the swift spread of the novel coronavirus.

As archivists, we’ve been asking ourselves about the ways in which society is documenting this pandemic, unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetime. Newspapers, television, and websites are filled every day with stories about COVID-19 and its impact on society. People are posting updates and videos on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook as they adjust to this new reality.

One hundred years from now, will all of this information be available as a historical record of what we’re currently experiencing? Will future generations have the opportunity to access the content we’re creating as we navigate this uncertain and difficult time?

The Society of American Archivists has published a resource page that includes a link to Documenting Your Community’s Experience of COVID-19: A Resource ListArchives and archivists are actively seeking and collecting photographs, social media posts, artwork, journal and diary entries, emails, physical items, and other types of materials “related to documenting experiences and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Hopefully these resources will serve not only as documentary evidence for future historians, but will allow us as individuals to process our fears and emotions during the pandemic.

Take care of yourself and your loved ones, and stay well!

One Shift, Two Shift, Redshift, Blueshift

By Lauren Amundson

Lowell Observatory astronomer V.M. Slipher is best known for his discovery of the radial velocities of spiral nebulae, which we now know to be galaxies. In 1912, Slipher determined that the spiral nebulae were moving at approximately three times the speed of any other known object. Objects that are moving away from us exhibit a change in wavelength called redshift, and objects moving toward us exhibit blueshift. (What are Redshift and Blueshift?)

Slipher’s discovery laid the groundwork for Edwin Hubble’s research on the expanding universe. We’ve recently digitized our collection of letters between Slipher and Hubble, dating from 1922 to 1953. The two astronomers discuss the rotation and velocities of spiral nebulae, spectrographic images, manuscript drafts, meetings and committees, lectures, and personal topics. You can find the collection here.



Support Your Local Archives!

archives month

Every October, we celebrate archives and the archival profession with American Archives Month. October 2nd is #AskAnArchivist Day. Do you have questions about preserving your family photographs and documents? What about your digital records? Think about all those photos you have stored on your phone and nowhere else!


As part of Archives Month, archivists from several institutions in northern Arizona will offer a free workshop on preserving family history. Bring your documents, photographs, and scrapbooks to the event! Archivists will provide a basic overview of archival preservation practices and have some free preservation supplies available for attendees. No reservations required.

When: Saturday, October 12 from 10 am to noon

Where: Gregg Cabin at the Pioneer Museum, 2340 N Fort Valley Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86001

Other Resources:

Caring for Private and Family Collections

How to Preserve Family Archives

Preserving Your Digital Memories

A Sticky Situation

By Lauren Amundson

Since 2014, we’ve been moving collections from various storage areas on Lowell Observatory’s campus to the Putnam Collection Center. As part of the moving process, we use a freezer for pest control. Before we put items or boxes in the freezer, we wrap them in plastic sheeting and tape them shut to make sure no condensation forms on the inside. Think of it as less colorful gift wrapping!

With inspiration from colleagues at another institution, we decided to create a ball of used tape as we unwrapped the boxes. We haven’t added to it for a while, but maybe it’s time to get back to it. Indiana Jones, anyone?

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