- Historic Sites
The Medium Had The Message:
Mrs. Piper and the Professors
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
“If I may be allowed the language of the professional logic shop, a universal proposition can be made untrue by a particular instance. If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black you must not seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My own white crow is Mrs. Piper. In the trances of this medium I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the ordinary waking use of her eyes and ears and Wits.”
—WILLIAM JAMKS, 1894, in a speech made on the occasion of his becoming president of the Society for Psychical Research
Mrs. Leonora Piper, the world’s greatest psychic medium, was outwardly the world’s most ordinary woman. She was a shy, self-effacing lady, as wary of publicity as any other prim Bostonian. One pictures her crossing the Boston Common where she suddenly pauses to catch her breath—she was plagued by a dozen minor ailments, and shortness of breath was chronic with her. She is carrying her inevitable black umbrella in one hand and n shabby needlepoint baq in the other. Inside the bag, one imagines, are pill boxes, patent medicines, smelling salts to counter the “vapors,” and verylittle money, for Mrs. Piper did not profit by her talent. Her black shoes are sturdy, sensible, and high-buttoned. Her features are plain. Socially and educationally she is aljove the local mill women, but it would be too flat terinç to call her middleclass. The brown skirt and unadorned bonnet she wears give the impression of an underpaid schoolmarm. If we try to sum her up in a metaphor, she becomes a drab house sparrow slightly grayed by the factory smoke of Boston.
There is nothing extraordinary about our picture. But lurking in the background, just out of sight, there may be a pair of inconspicuous gentlemen, private detectives hired to shadow this harmlesslooking woman. For Mrs. Piper was frequently under surveillance. Her comings and goings were noted, her contacts observed, her mail scrutinized. No foreign spy was ever trailed more closely. At one period in her life she was a virtual prisoner of the Society for Pyschical Research, led about without being (old where she was, and kept completely in the dark about her next destination.
All attempts to expose her as a fraud ended in failure, however, and efforts to explain her peeuliar power ended in conlusion. Now, sixty years after her final séance, the least that ean be said about Mrs. Piper is that her case offers the most convincing and dramatic evidence of extrasensory perception ever recorded. And that is the very least. She was truly amazing.
COPYRIGHT © 1971 BY ROBERT SOMERLOTT
To understand Mrs. Piper’s remarkable career it is necessary to sec her against the background of the modern spiritualist movement. Spiritualism, as Ixronora Piper came to understand it, is a serious religion, with prophets, philosophers, creeds, and articles of faith, (t is splintered into so manv sects and cults that generalizations about its tenets are riskv, but usually spiritualism is overlaid with a veneer of Christianity. A spiritualist can attend a Methodist service on Sunday morning and a séance on Sunday night with no conflict of beliefs. Spiritualism, as the word suggests, concerns itself not onlv with invisible spirits (ghosts), but also with matters and values that are “spiritual” in the usual Christian sense.
On the other hand, what is often called “spiritism” emphasizes the physical manifestations of occult forces: lévitations, table tipping, floating trumpets, and mysterious transportation. It is in no sense a religion. Spiritualism seeks to establish the survival of the soul and to communicate with the Other Side. Spiritism is more related to witchcraft and magic. Obviously the two overlap at times, and the choice of term depends on each practitioner’s emphasis.
Although spiritualism in various forms is an ancient faith, the modern movement is American in origin and dates back only to the mid-nineteenth century. Despite countless examples of fraud, excess, and at times sheer lunacv, to its followers it remains a matter of deepest conviction. Unhappily for these believers and most unfortunately for psychical research, the movement’s genesis is traced back to four women who were tricksters of the cheapest variety.
In December, 1847, John D. Fox, his wife Margarete, and their two youngest children, Margaretta and Katie, took up residence in a modest frame house near Hydesville, New York. They were an undistinguished family, and John Fox, a Methodist farmer, attracted no special attention. Fox was not bothered by certain dark rumors concerning their new dwelling. For several years there had been reports of nocturnal disturbances there, and the neighbors harbored vague misgivings that the place was haunted. During the first months the Fox family slept soundly, although a few peculiar noises were heard at night. Then, in February, the sounds became distinct and sometimes alarming. On Friday evening, March 31, 1848, the Foxes went to bed early. The familiar raps and thumps began almost at once, louder than ever, and Katie, then aged twelve, suddenly called out the words that were to mark the beginning of spiritualism: “Here, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do!”