The Medium Had The Message:


Hodgson’s conversion was partly based on proofs, arguments, and testing. But to a great degree he was overwhelmed by an undefinable certainty that he was in the living presence of George Pelham and the other communicators who spoke through Mrs. Piper. The ghosts were real. They were human beings who chatted pleasantly of old times, recalled mutual secrets with friends, and chuckled at the memories of past incidents. Hodgson wrote, “I cannot profess to have any doubt but that … they have survived the change we call death, and they have direct communication with us whom we call living through Mrs. Piper’s entranced organism.”

It must not be thought that the crusty doctor had in any way gone mellow or turned credulous. He considered Mrs. Piper a magnificent exception in a fraudulent world. During the time of his growing faith in Mrs. Piper, he was launching his most vitriolic attacks against other practitioners. Armed with sealing wax, thermometers, and measuring tapes, Hodgson invaded several supposedly haunted houses. The least skeptical report he ever made was the Scottish verdict, “Not proven.”

In January, 1906, Hodgson suddenly dropped dead while playing handball. We do not know if he achieved the immortality he believed in, but in any event he himself soon began to appear as a control in Leonora’s trances. James declared that the Piper-Hodgson trances revealed nothing that Mrs. Piper could not have learned from the doctor during their long acquaintance, and Oliver Lodge described the Hodgson control as vague and unsatisfactory. Frank Podmore, a psychical researcher and author of The Newer Spiritualism , didn’t agree. He wrote that the Hodgson control “seems to have been one of the most lifelike and dramatic impersonations of the whole series given by Mrs. Piper, and many relevant statements were made of an intimate kind such as could scarcely have proceeded from Mrs. Piper herself.”

Lifelike or not, the Hodgson control made major blunders. One sitter, a Dr. Hall, fooled the medium by creating a fictitious niece, “the late Bessie Beals,” and at one of the Hodgson-controlled séances the nonexistent girl communicated from the Other Side. When called to task for this error, the Hodgson control tried to squirm out of the situation by saying he meant “Jessie Beals,” a ghost who must be related to another sitter. It was a performance quite uncharacteristic of Dr. Hodgson in real life.

By this time Leonora’s power was waning, becoming unsteady. At times she reverted to earlier controls, including the celebrities and historical personages Phinuit had once replaced. One evening the ghost of George Eliot began to write with Mrs. Piper’s hand, and the demonstration seemed remarkable until the phantom novelist announced that in life she had been a friend of Adam Bedel∗

∗“Adam Bede is the title of one of George Eliot’s novels.

The confusion in the later trances was compounded when the Imperator Band invaded Mrs. Piper’s psychic life. The Imperator Band was a tribe of supposedly ancient phantoms who had first appeared to the Reverend William Stainton-Moses in England during the 1870’s. They announced themselves as a hierarchy of spirits with a complicated social order, and their individual names—Imperator, Doctor, Rector, Theophiles- are reminiscent of Rosicrucian theology. The Band members made little sense, and their presence contributed nothing but murk to Mrs. Piper’s mediumship. The only valuable advice they gave was the recommendation that Mrs. Piper have fewer trances since her health was obviously failing.

In November, 1909, she made a final trip to England, where for the first time she experienced great difficulty in inducing a trance, and, more dangerous, she sometimes fell into a prolonged coma afterward. Her last séance took place in July, 1911, and even in the final moments of her career the shy lady from Boston had a new surprise to offer. Although she failed to reach a state of hypnosis, her hand moved convulsively, then began to write automatically when she was otherwise fully conscious. It is ironic that the only Piper s∗ance she herself saw was the last one.

Leonora died (she would have said, “Crossed to the Other Side”) in 1950. The medium’s death was widely mourned by spiritualists and workers in psychical research; there were a few newspaper obituaries that gave cautious reports of her achievements, and several rather sensational magazine stories. But the gentle, remarkable lady had long since vanished from the public’s memory.

The passage of time has provided no solutions to the mystifying questions raised by Mrs. Piper’s career. Did she have extraordinary extrasensory perception? Was it telepathy? Or was it ghosts? We can no more answer these awesome questions today than we could at the time of her last séance sixty years ago.