February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
Mrs. Piper and the Professors
“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!”
The phantom obligingly co-ordinated its rappings with the child’s movements, and counted her silent motions by knocks. She summoned her mother, crying, “Look! It can see as well as hear!” Mrs. Fox, with great presence of mind, asked the invisible rapper if it knew the ages of her children, and a reply came promptly: fifteen raps for Margaretta, twelve for Katie.
The Fox family slept little that night. The neighbors were invited in to take part in a fascinating investigation, and very quickly a communication system was established: rapping for yes, silence for no. This method soon evolved into an alphabet system, and it was ascertained that the mysterious presence was the ghost of a peddler named Charles Rosna, who, for the sake of his meager possessions, had been murdered on the premises by a previous tenant.
Later on, when the Foxes dug up the cellar, they disinterred such grirn relics as hair, teeth, and bones. No proper examination of these objects was made, and there was no real evidence that a murder had taken place. This did not matter. Spiritualism was exactly what the world craved at the moment, and the raps heard in Hydesville were soon reproduced in a do/cn countries.
The local impact was tremendous. Mrs. Fox and her daughters became instant celebrities. Soon afterward young Margaretta went to visit her married sister. Mrs. Ann Leah Fish, in Roehcster. and apparently the ghost followed her, lor rappings immediately began in the home of Mrs. Fish, attracting so much attention that the crossroads village of Hydesville was robbed of its rightful place in history. The birth of modern spiritualism is attributed to the “Rochester Rappings,’ not to the Hydesville ghost.
Meanwhile, Katie Fox visited Auburn, New York, and there, too. the spirits were promptly aroused. Counting oil” the alphabet in response to spectral signals became a craze in the town.
Mrs. Fox, Katie, and Margaretta turned professional on the spot. So did Mrs. Fish, who claimed mediumship by heredity and demonstration. In fact, Mrs. F’ish, who was the last ol the Fox sisters to enter upon this career, was also the last to leave it. She maintained a profitable circle after the rest of the family had retired, and her successive marriages to a Mr. Brown and then a Mr. Underbill did not conflict with her career.
Although the F’ox women had broken the ground, they were not left alone in the field. Two ladies who heard the Auburn tappings went into the seance business, and many mediums, both male and female, announced themselves in Rochester. Spiritualism reached epidemic proportions. Within three years after the Hydesville sensation there were more than a hundred mediums in New York City and more than fifty séance groups assembling regularly in Philadelphia.
The Fox sisters were venerated, and, despite still competition, they reaped the most in honor and profit, even though their first exposure as fakes came as early as 1851 at the hands of three doctors who observed public séances in Buffalo. The doctors denounced the rappings as fraud executed by cracking the kneejoints. and not long afterward the girls themselves admitted this was so. Furthermore, they explained something the investigators had overlooked. Margaretta and Katie had also developed the art of “toe cracking.” The girls were self-confessed tricksters, and, worse, they were instructors of fakery who gladly taught their young friends the skills of charlatanism.
One might forgive the girls’ duplicity and wish them nothing worse than a sound spanking, had they stuck to such romantic and harmless adventures as communicating with the ghost of a murdered peddler. But they were not merely self-dramatizing juveniles. The Fox sisters were greedy little creatures, utterly heartless and amoral, who sought profit by giving false consolation to the bereaved. They capitalized on the grief of widows and mothers who had lost their children. They were the first American mediums-of-prey; unfortunately they were not the last.
The complete exposure of the Fox sisters had little effect on the growing spiritualist movement. Unlike some other religions, spiritualism was not dependent on a single miracle or prophet. The Hydesville ghost was merely the match that lit the wildfire. In the disruption of established social patterns caused by the Industrial Revolution, unformed beliefs and impulses toward spiritualism had been smoldering for a long time.
Spiritualism offered the appealing promise of direct communication with departed loved ones—its most powerful attraction—but this alone did not account for its instant popularity and spread across the world. In its early days it was also decked with the trappings of mesmerism and electricity, two fascinating “scientific” phenomena about which little was known. Electricity appeared to have infinite potentialities; mesmerism suggested unknown corridors of the mind; combined in an “Electrical Mesmeric Trance,” they were irresistible.
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.
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.
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.
Mr. Shaw had a document and other business papers that required the signature of a man who had disappeared. Leaving his own city, Shaw set out to track the man down; after difficulties he found him in a cheap boarding house on the New Jersey coast.
The man had become an alcoholic and now lay on a bed suffering delirium tremens. Unaware of his companion or his surroundings, he constantly picked at the sheets, the pillow, and his own body as though trying to remove vermin that crawled over him. For at least two days Shaw waited patiently at the bedside, watching the ceaseless picking, hoping that a lucid moment would come. When the victim recovered slightly, Shawwhipped out his fountain pen and, guiding the weak hand, managed to obtain the needed signature.
His mission accomplished, Shaw began his homeward trip, which required an overnight stop in Washington. He learned, upon arriving in the capital, that Mrs. Piper was giving a public demonstration, and having heard of the remarkable lady, decided to attend. When the call came for members of the audience to send small objects to the stage, Shaw, his curiosity aroused, sent up his fountain pen.
The medium, apparently in a verylight trance, touched the pen, then, moaning, began to pick at herself, her fluttering hands running over her collar, her sleeves, the skirt of her dress, in an uncanny imitation of the delirium tremens victim. Recoiling from the pen, Mrs. Piper announced that she had never been so uncomfortable in her life.
Shaw watched in amazement. There seemed no possible way for the medium to have known the pen’s recent history- he alone knew about the man in the boarding house, yet he had just observed a re-enactment terrible in its exactness. After the demonstration, Shawreturned home to tell his story, adding another bit to the legend of Mrs. Piper.
A young friend of Dr. Hodgson’s, George Pelham, had once attended a sitting with Mrs. Piper. He was presented to the medium under an alias, and the séance was not especially notable. Mrs. Piper never knew she had met him, and she could not have made any great impression on Pelham, for the young man remained a skeptic not just regarding spiritualism but about all religion. He had strong doubts about any existence after earthly life.
Pelham died suddenly in February, 1892, and about a month after his death a friend who assumed the name John Hart attended a séance with Mrs. Piper in Boston. Dr. Phinuit, in control, suddenly said, “There is another George who wants to speak to you.” This spirit announced himself as G. P. and not only identified himself by his right name, but revealed Hart’s true name, which was unknown to the medium. He then mentioned various common acquaintances, and the following dialogue took place:
Hart ( showing a pair of studs )—Who gave them to me?
G.P.—That’s mine. I sent that to you.
G.P.—Before I came here. Mother gave you that.
G.P.—Well, Father then. Father and Mother together. You got those after I passed out. Mother took them. Gave them to Father, and Father gave them to you …
This information, unknown to Hart, proved correct. G.P.’s stepmother had removed the studs from the corpse and asked her husband to present them to Hart. G.P., in this first appearance, made a number of references to James and Mary Howard, mutual friends of Pelham and Hart. At Hart’s urging, the Howards reluctantly agreed to attend a séance, although they were not interested in occult experiments, and the notion of attempting to contact the dead Pelham seemed distasteful to them.
The séance was held on April 11,1892. G.P. made contact almost at once, and this time he did not speak through Phinuit but in his own voice—or at least in a voice so like that of George Pelham that Mrs. Howard recognized the tone at once and was thoroughly frightened.
G.P.—Jim, is that you? Speak to me quick. I am not dead. Don’t think of me dead. I am awfully glad to see you. Can’t you see me? Don’t you hear me? Give my love to my father and tell him I want to see him. … I want you to know I think of you still. …
Howard—What do you do, George, where are you?
G.P. —I am scarcely able to do anything yet; I am just awakened to the reality of life after death. It was like darkness. I could not distinguish anything at first … I was puzzled, confused. Shall have an occupation soon. …
Howard—Were you not surprised to find yourself living?
G.P.—Perfectly so. Greatly surprised. I did not believe in a future life. It was beyond my reasoning powers … Now it is as clear as daylight to me … I want all the fellows to know about me …
The conversation then veered to personal acquaintances, mention of a letter box, and other subjects. Howard attempted to ask G. P. two test questions he had devised, but after several false starts in the voice of G.P., Dr. Phinuit pushed his way into the séance.
Although Howard later verified most of the incidents and details revealed during the séance, he remained in a quandary, torn between his natural doubt and his belief in what seemed impossible. After ten more sessions with Mrs. Piper he was suddenly convinced of G.P.’s reality when, on a winter night in 1892, Mrs. Piper became submerged in a deep trance, her body apparently lifeless. The right hand began to twitch, jerk, then to write with great speed in answer to Howard’s demand for proof. “Tell me,” he insisted, “something known only to G.P. and myself.”
That evening, Dr. Hodgson was recording the events. He took up several sheets of paper on which Mrs. Piper had written and read them aloud to Howard, who agreed that the statements were correct. Suddenly the medium wrote, “Private,” and gently pushed Hodgson away.
I retired to the other side of the room, and Mr. Howard took my place close to the hand where he could read the writing. He did not, of course, read it aloud and it was too private for my perusal. The hand, as it reached the end of each sheet, tore it off from the block book, and thrust it wildly at Mr. Howard, and then continued writing. The circumstances narrated, Mr. Howard informed me, contained precisely the kind of test for which he had asked, and he said that he was ‘perfectly satisfied, perfectly.’
We do not know, of course, what was written on the pages. Obviously it was the story of some private conversation or experience that Howard and Pelham had secretly shared. At any rate, it was enough to convince James Howard.
G.P. began to replace Dr. Phinuit, although at times they shared the medium in a remarkable manner: while Phinuit was speaking, G.P. would use Mrs. Piper’s hand to write about an entirely different subject. Phinuit’s vividness, which had so impressed William James, waned as the power of G.P. waxed. More and more trance communications were in writing. Mrs. Piper, after trembling violently, would fall forward onto the table, where cushions had been placed to protect her. An invisible presence then seemed to seize her right hand and arm, using them to produce automatic writing, often at such a furious speed that the entranced lady could hardly keep up with the torrent of words.
Hodgson, feeling that more proof of the G. P. phenomenon was required, arranged for one hundred and fifty persons to attend sittings. They were carefully screened, and as far as anyone could determine none of them had ever met Mrs. Piper. Of this group, thirty had been friends or acquaintances of G. P. and the remaining one hundred and twenty had not. The first task of the ghostly George Pelham was to identify which sitters had been his friends during life. The odds against a correct guess in any given case were four to one. Since Hodgson was familiar with Leonora Piper’s uncanny talent, he fully expected that the number of correct identifications would be well above the mathematical probabilities of guesswork, but he was hardly prepared for the astonishing thing that happened.
When the shade of G.P. was asked to single out his friends, his score was exactly thirty out of one hundred and fifty. There was not one mistake!
Further, G. P. not only mentioned shared experiences to his friends, but in every case he treated the sitters with the same degree of intimacy George Pelham would have shown in life. He was polite to casual acquaintances, more relaxed with those he knew better, and cordial to old friends.
It was the most remarkable case of “something” ever recorded, although what the “something” might be remained an open question. The advocates of ESP declare that Mrs. Piper unconsciously read the minds of the sitters. If this is so, she must also have read their memories, for G.P. frequently mentioned incidents from the past which were accurate but which were not in the conscious minds of the sitters until G. P. talked about them.
There are others who feel that the G. P. control was exactly what he claimed to be: the spirit of George Pelham.
One of Mrs. Piper’s triumphs was the conversion of Dr. Hodgson. As evidence accumulated, Hodgson’s skepticism suffered one blow after another. He at last became convinced that Mrs. Piper was in touch not only with living minds through ESP, but with departed personalities as well. James disagreed. Although he accepted a version of immortality, James believed that Mrs. Piper’s ghosts were creations of her own unconscious mind, and that her amazing fund of information came via telepathy.
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.