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The Medium Had The Message:
Mrs. Piper and the Professors
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
James began his study with an impartial attitude, even though his patience had been sorely tried in the past by fakers and zanies. Dr. Hodgson, on the other hand, was an out-and-out skeptic. Having exposed one humbug after another, the doctor was already known as the curmudgeon of spiritism. His doubts about all mediums, nurtured by experience, went far beyond suspicion.
One can appreciate Hodgson’s cynicism. The techniques of fraud in séances had developed way beyond the toe and knee cracking of the Fox sisters. Other fakes such as the Davenport brothers had been able to impress the public for years. Ira and William Davenport staged their spurious séances in theaters or large halls, and the presentation resembled a vaudeville act. They sat face to face in a wooden cabinet resembling a topless wardrobe chest and invited any two men of the audience to bind them securely. Musical instruments were then placed in the cabinet, the half doors were closed, and the lights were dimmed. Soon came the tones of trumpets and banjos while glimmering hands waved at the spectators. The trickery of the Davenports was easily duplicated by a number of stage performers, and the pair came to real grief when, in Liverpool, they were tied with a special “Tom Fool’s knot” that foiled the spirits completely. The audience rose up in a mob and the tricksters had a narrow escape.
It is no wonder that when James and Hodgson began their study of Leonora Piper they were a pair of skeptical gentlemen. But as time went by they were astonished to realize that here, at last, was not only a talented woman but an honest one.
They first turned their attention to Dr. Phinuit, the control, and the HodgsonJames reports reveal the strangeness of Mrs. Piper’s trance personality. Phinuit, unlike the spirits who invested Mrs. Piper later, communicated orally, employing the medium’s mouth but using a French manner of speaking English and his own masculine voice. Whether Phinuit was a spirit or an emergence of Leonora’s subliminal self, he appeared to have an independent existence within the trance and a vivid, definite personality. Sitters were disconcerted by his presence. They felt an uncanny sense of Phinuit’s Frenchness, individualism, and above all, his masculinity, although the medium her- sell was the epitome of the feminine.
The Hodgson-James method of investigation seemed foolproof. They would assemble a group of sitters who were unknown to the medium and who were never introduced to her by their real names. No clues about their backgrounds were given. The seance then consisted of conversations between Phinuit and the anonymous sitters, the spectral doctor chatting about members of a visitor’s family, often reciting full details of name, relationship, character, occupation, dress, and appearance. There was no distinction between the living and the dead. The personal details about deceased relatives were reported with accuracy equal to Dr. Phinuit’s astonishingly precise revelations about the sitters themselves.
The doctor liked to hold the floor and was intensely jealous of his post as Mrs. Piper’s control. Usually he insisted upon being sole narrator; rarely would he permit another spirit to speak directly through his medium. Phinuit was at times inclined to be rude. Uc interrupted often and spoke with a Gallic directness and bluntness utterly lorcit^n to Mrs. Piper’s natural personality.
A striking; feature o! the trances was the relationship between Mrs. Piper’s clairvoyance (or telepathy) and physical objects. Il something belonging; to the person bcinq discussed—a letter, pin, or brooch, for example—was pressed against the medium’s forehead (“offered to Phinuit”), communication was greatly strengthened. The doctor then spoke rapidly, releasing a flood of copious detail. At times the control would become confused, would ask questions, and would go off on “fishing expeditions,” seeking to make a correct hit when the facts eluded him.
Strangely, there was often uncanny accuracy in the midst of a major mistake. At one séance Phinuit gave a graphic description of a sitter’s father, but the name he attributed to the subject was not the name of the father but the name of the sitter himself, who had been introduced to Mrs. Piper under an alias.
After two years of intensive study, verification, and checking, Hodgson and James recommended that the British Society for Psychical Research invite the medium to England. Since she had never visited abroad, her ignorance of the country and the people she would meet was assured, and this made testing conditions ideal. She travelled there in 1889, was kept secluded on shipboard to prevent her making any contacts, and what happened upon her arrival sounds more like a kidnapping than a welcome. Oliver Lodge, then professor of physics at University College in Liverpool and head of the committee to test Mrs. Piper, awaited her on the dock. He permitted her to talk to no one, but whisked her away byclosed carriage to his own home, where every possible precaution had been taken. Photos, letters, and personal papers had been locked away, no callers could get past the guarded doors, and even the servants were temporary replacements for the usual staff, since Lodge feared that a household worker might let slip some information to Mrs. Piper.