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The Medium Had The Message:
Mrs. Piper and the Professors
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
The first few years of the movement produced no great mediums. Nor was there a Mrs. Piper to give the new faith an evidential basis. But there were multitudes of practitioners, such as farmer John Koons with his menagerie of Ohio ghosts. Borrowing a bit of drama from pentecostal Protestantism, two mediums in Keokuk, Iowa, began to utter in “tongues,” speaking Latin that could be verified, Indian speech that no one knew, and a German jargon surprisingly identified as “Swiss.”
American spiritualism quickly developed a theology, philosophy, technique, science, and historical heritage. The Shawnee Prophet, a brother of Chief Tecumseh who lived from 1768 until 1837, was rediscovered and became America’s legendary seer. The “farseeing warrior” was said to have received messages directly from the spirit world with- out the aid of a control, and while entranced he predicted the solar eclipse of 1806. The immense popularity of the Shawnee Prophet may explain why Indian maidens, warriors, chiefs, and medicine men appear so frequently as controls. Indeed, there are enough Indian ghosts in occult history to overcrowd a large reservation.
In the next few decades, the spiritualist movement continued strong, although the initial rage for it soon subsided. There was far too much revealed fraud and too little hard evidence. Crudities easily swallowed by the natives of Hydesville could not withstand scrutiny. Sharper intellects and keener investigators entered psychical research, and although they discovered many unexplained events and phenomena, the excess of trickery and foolishness was so great that truth-seeking investigators had almost concluded that to scratch a medium was to find a charlatan.
Such was the state of affairs when in 1884 Leonora E. Piper, plagued by ailments including the aftereffects of an accident, decided to consult a psychic healer in Boston.
Mrs. Piper’s first venture into the occult was neither satisfying nor successful. The professional clairvoyant gave her little relief from her aches and pains. Yet she felt some power, a disturbing but attractive force, beckoning her, and she returned to the psychic gentleman a second time. While seated with the other clients, she suddenly felt herself drawn into a state of suspended animation. The furniture appeared to whirl around her, her mind reeled, and collapsing on the table, she fell into a deep trance, apparently hypnotic. Her body convulsed, she groaned, mumbled, then began to speak—but not with her own voice.
An alien being had apparently seized the lady, blotting out her personality, and although the mouth was hers, the words and inflections were those of another presence—a dead girl with the surprising name Chlorine, who, less surprisingly, proved to have Indian ancestry. (It is a pity that Mrs. Piper’s first control should have turned out to be Chlorine. Of all trance personalities none are so trite as Indian maidens.)
This first trance was primitive compared to Mrs. Piper’s later work, and Chlorine, though less taciturn than many of her race, proved rather unresponsive. Still, it was an impressive demonstration, and Mrs. Piper, to her own complete astonishment, attained full-fledged mcdiumship by one initial plunge into the occult void. Hereafter she was able to invoke the entranced state by her own will, a trance so deep that every trace of the everyday Mrs. Piper vanished. She was unaware of events that happened while she remained in this state and had no memory of them afterward. She was examined repeatedly by physicians, psychologists, and even vaudeville mesmerists, and their verdict was unanimous: Leonora Piper, as her conscious self, became utterly submerged.
Chlorine was soon ousted as a control, and during the next four years a number of spirits possessed Mrs. Piper, vying to hold their positions, as though a ghostly struggle were being waged on the Other Side. They were spirits of prominent people, among them the actress Sarah Kemble Siddons, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Some observers believed that the sharp physical pain and the racking of body that Mrs. Piper suffered while sinking into a trance were caused by conflicting spirits crowding upon her in a battle for possession. Eventually the more celebrated ghosts were overcome by the persistent shade of a Frenchman named Dr. Phinuit. Phinuit would remain with her a long time.
In early séances Mrs. Piper gave a number of remarkable demonstrations of “psychic knowledge,” but records were poorly kept and the investigations superficial. At this period she was dealing mostly with believers who were easilysatisfied. But this situation changed in 1885 when she became a subject for study by philosopher-psychologist William James of Harvard. James, favorably impressed by his first findings, introduced Mrs. Piper to Dr. Richard Hodgson of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1887, and from then until 1911 examination of Mrs. Piper was unceasing. Hired detectives often trailed her, volunteers watched her, her utterances were checked and double-checked, and every facet of her private life was scrutinized for evidence of fraud. No fraud was discovered; Mrs. Piper was integrity itself.