- Historic Sites
The Medium Had The Message:
Mrs. Piper and the Professors
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
The lady was searched, both her luggage and her person. Then a group of absolute strangers were presented to her under assumed names. As soon as Mrs. Piper was entranced, Dr. Phinuit began to identify them one by one, revealing incidents, details, and occupations. The sitters were astounded. Phinuit made a few mistakes and a few near misses, but the overall impression was amazing as he described homes and rooms, mentioned names of children, and even diagnosed ailments in the light of the subjects’ past medical histories—histories that Mrs. Piper could not have known.
Where could such information come from? Lodge, determined to find out. devised a test that has now become a classic case. He had twin uncles, Robert andjerry; the latter had died two decades earlier. Uncle Robert had been requested (by mail) to send Lodge some possession of the deceased Jerry, and at the next séance a gold watch was “offered to Phinuit.” The doctor spoke at once: “It belonged to your uncle.” Then followed hesitations, false starts, and then: “Uncle Jerry.”
With Phinuit acting as interlocutor between Lodge and his uncle’s ghost, Jerry cheerfully reminisced about boyhood events, mentioning a skin he had once owned which he believed to be a snakeskin, recalling being nearly drowned in a creek, and confessing to the killing of a cat at a place known as Smith’s Field. Lodge himself knew nothing of such incidents nor did anyone else who was present. Hc wrote to Uncle Robert, requesting confirmation or denial, and the uncle replied at once that there had indeed been a snakeskin, but he could not recall the near drowning or the cat. Even if the story had ended here, it would have been a triumph for Mrs. Piper. Out of a thousand possible names she had said “Jerry.” Of many possible relationships she immediately said “Uncle.” And a snakeskin is an unusual enough object to suggest more than a lucky guess.
But the story of Uncle Jerry was by no means over. A third uncle, Frank, came forward to announce that he clearly recalled the near drowning, the death of the cat, and, yes, the name of the place had been Smith’s Field.
Such uncanny accuracy could not be coincidental, yet there seemed no possibility that a secret accomplice had uncovered the information and coached the medium. Nevertheless, Lodge sent an investigator to the village where Uncle Jerry had lived to determine if the facts could be learned from old residents and if anyone had recently attempted to ferret out details of the family. The errand was fruitless, except for exonerating Mrs. Piper.
One cannot but wonder what the lady herself thought of all these investigations, the endless questioning of her honesty and probing into her private affairs. Fortunately for her domestic serenity, her husband (until his death in 1904) and her two daughters took great inter- est in her “work,” only regretting that Mrs. Piper’s pyschic life took up a !»real deal of her time. She herself seems to have endured it all with great patience, although she was rather bewildered at finding herself the (enter of so much attention. Since she was quite unable to remember what took place during the trances, it is understandable that she was less impressed than others were. She thought her English visit was “very nice.”
At the end of the series of séances, Lodge and two eminent colleagues made a report to the Society. Aside from the startling story it tells, the document is interesting because it reveals the attitude of the investigators. They succeed in keeping their scientific aplomb, they strike the correct note of objectivity; yet there is an undertone of awe. The gentlemen had never before encountered anything like Mrs. Piper.
Although the modest lady from Boston sailed through the investigations with flying colors, Dr. Phinuit fared badly. The report obliterates him as a separate individual of historical reality. The French doctor did not actually speak French, and accounts he gave of his earthly existence did not hang together. British physicians declared that Phinuit was often a brilliant diagnostician—that is to say, he agreed with them—but his medical knowledge was sketchy. It was suggestive that Phinuit’s name seemed to be a variant of the name of the control used by the Boston faith healer who initiated Mrs. Piper. The committee concluded that Phinuit was an alter ego of the medium, part of her subliminal self.
Unlike many mediums of her day Leonora Piper was not a constant public performer. But when she did travel and appear in strange auditoriums before strange audiences, there were sometimes amazing results.
No doubt she also disappointed many of the spectators, people who identified mediumship with ghost shows and lévitations. Tricks were beneath her, and she would make no deliberate effort to please a crowd. Her mission, after all, was primarily religious. Mrs. Piper looked upon herself as a “bringer of glad tidings,” not as a theatrical performer.
The more discerning members of her audience, however, were astonished by what they heard. One such spectator was a Mr. Shaw, an inventor, a most practical man with a clear mind and a strong personality. His story is typical of hundreds of Mrs. Piper’s demonstrations.