Ghost world

Torn between the spiritual and the rational, William James and the Society for Psychical Research sought to document the supernatural -- and found some spooky evidence.


Laura Miller
August 28, 2006 3:31PM (UTC)

The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 to answer questions that seemed terribly pressing at the time: Is there life after death? Is the human mind more than a collection of chemical and electrical reactions? Does some kind of divine intelligence inform the universe? Of course, those questions haven't gone away, despite fears on the part of SPR members that scientific materialism would soon become the ruling dogma of Western life.

The "ghost hunters" of the SPR were far from being the conglomeration of kooks you might expect. The society attracted some of the great minds of its era, including American psychologist and philosopher William James. Besides James, the SPR could claim many professors, a pioneering evolutionary theorist, several important physicists, two Nobel Prize winners, a distinguished chemist, the principal of the first women's college at Cambridge and the discoverers or developers of half a dozen essential tools for modern life, from the cathode ray tube to wireless telegraphy.

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Deborah Blum's new history of the society's early days, "Ghost Hunters," professes to focus on James' involvement with the group (he's the best known of the initial members), but it's really a broader story. The society was founded by men (and one woman) who felt torn between the spiritual sustenance of religious traditions and the scientific worldview that was transforming their lives and their understanding of the universe -- especially Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. They were people, Blum writes, who "craved a refuge from the increasingly belligerent stands taken by both religious and scientific leaders" and "believed that objective and intelligent investigation could provide answers to the troubling metaphysical questions of the time."

Take Alfred Russell Wallace, whose own independently developed theory of natural selection was presented with Darwin's at a London scientific meeting in 1859. Although he continued to study and defend evolution, Wallace decided that its mechanics lacked something crucial. He believed in the soul, and possibly in a divine hand directing some of the evolutionary process (a notion that seems like an early form of intelligent design). "Evidence for such an artful planner could only be found by investigating in the supernatural realm" is how Blum describes Wallace's answer to this quandary. Spiritualism -- from séances to performing mind readers to parlor games like the Ouija board -- was all the rage in Europe and America. Most of it was bogus, but a few examples struck Wallace and other thinkers as their only leads in a quest that was of the utmost importance to humanity.

This project wasn't popular with either clergymen or other scientists. T.H. Huxley, who functioned more or less as Darwinism's attack dog in public debates about evolution, told Wallace, "The only good argument I can see in a demonstration of the truth of 'Spiritualism' is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better to live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a medium hired at a guinea a séance." Most 19th century scientists, Blum writes, "felt a personal responsibility not to investigate claims of the supernatural but to debunk them out of hand."

This sentiment was made abundantly clear to the SPR. The society's prominent members suffered professionally for advocating even the most rigorous and skeptical studies of the paranormal, no matter how distinguished they were in their other work. One was hounded out of his professorship at Columbia University, and others were roundly ridiculed and accused of incipient insanity in scientific journals. For this, and not unreasonably, Blum admires their "intellectual courage."

But one of the peculiarities of this gracefully written and always fascinating book is Blum's noncommittal stance toward the ideas driving most of the society's research. Does she believe that the handful of well-documented, genuinely mystifying phenomena the society recorded qualify as evidence of the supernatural? You won't learn that for sure from reading "Ghost Hunters." Of course, the very fact that she has written a book about the group and presents their efforts sympathetically suggests she does. Or she might simply be endorsing the idea that scientists should keep their minds open and not dismiss a subject of study "out of hand" -- some of the society's most passionate critics insisted that they'd refuse to believe in such matters even if they could be "proved."

So what about that evidence? For all the attention Blum pays to James and his intermittent seriousness about the SPR's research, "Ghost Hunters" is really a tale of two mediums. The first, a Boston shopkeeper's wife named Leonora Piper, was the essence of respectability. The researchers all found her "unguarded, basically uncomplicated, nice." Yet, in a trance state and speaking through "spirit guides" -- or "control" personalities, as the researchers viewed them -- she could deliver "breathtaking" results. She could fully and correctly name the father of a man who was presented to her nameless and with his face hooded. She could tell people where to find things they didn't even realize were lost. Handed a lock of hair by a visitor who didn't know whose head it had come from, she could supply surprisingly accurate information about its source.

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The other medium was Piper's complete opposite: Eusapia Palladino, a coarse, illiterate, promiscuous Neapolitan barfly in whose presence furniture flew across the room, curtains billowed without a breeze and strange luminous forms glowed in the air. The trouble with Eusapia (or one of the troubles -- she was an outrageous character) is that, besides being "grubby and distasteful," as Blum puts it, "she always cheated when she could." But on those rare occasions when she could be thoroughly restrained physically (this usually required the efforts of three grown men) in a brightly lit room that had been meticulously searched beforehand, she could still achieve remarkable effects. The SPR's experiments with her were, Blum writes, a "frustrating mix of deliberate fraud and inexplicable event."

Although Eusapia was a law unto herself, she represented a problem that plagued the SPR and other would-be legitimate paranormal researchers: the professional medium. These hucksters charged fees to conjure up the spirits of customers' dead relatives in darkened middle-class parlors or performed astounding feats onstage. They used slates, placed under a séance table, on which supposedly spectral hands recorded messages for the living, or asked questions that were answered by mysterious knocks and bangs. They sat in closed cabinets (to concentrate the "psychic energy") while ghostly figures roamed the room, some touching or even kissing the séance participants.

All of this foofaraw was faked, and much of the SPR's work lay in debunking it. Blank "spirit slates" were swapped under the table for slates with preinscribed messages (derived from research into the visitors' backgrounds). Thumbnails and cracking toe joints supplied the mysterious knocking. Hollow boot heels contained gauze saturated in luminous paint that could be pulled on wires or strings attached to the medium's feet. Even someone whose limbs were being held down by other people, as Eusapia's often were, could devise artful ways of wriggling that would, in the dark, leave two men mistakenly hanging onto just one hand while she used the other hand to overturn the table. In a way, the ingenuity evident in these frauds may place them among the most impressive achievements described in "Ghost Hunters."

The Society for Psychical Research hired skeptics and professional conjurers to investigate popular mediums, including a superhumanly dogged Australian named Richard Hodgson. Hodgson was the bane of the professional medium world. His exposé of the famous occult seer Madame Blavatsky (founder of the Theosophical Society) caused a sensation and infuriated some of the more credulous members of the SPR itself. Hodgson spent a few years chewing up and spitting out every professional psychic he looked into, until the society decided that it would automatically disqualify as a subject of serious study any medium who took money for his or her services. The SPR still kept its hand in, though, polishing its image as a tough critic by occasionally sending its investigators out to debunk a celebrated psychic.

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Hodgson met his match, however, in Leonora Piper, and the SPR generally came to see her as their best hope for proving that something that defied conventional scientific understanding was going on. As James put it, in defending himself against a critic, "If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn't seek to show that no crows are: it is enough if you can prove one single crow to be white." Piper, he explained, was "my own white crow." Hodgson policed Piper's sittings and presided over them like a glowering totem, causing James and others to worry that he kept their "white crow" in a perpetual and damaging "stress state," but even Hodgson grew to believe that she had extraordinary powers.

The society could never quite settle on the source of those powers, though. Even the SPR's most hardheaded member, Nora Sidgwick, felt that their data supported the existence of some kind of telepathy. Nora was remarkable. The wife of SPR's founder and first principal of Newnham, the first women's college at Cambridge, she was also an amateur mathematician whose idea of fun was helping her brother-in-law, physics Nobelist Lord Rayleigh, with astronomical calculations. Her husband, Henry Sidgwick, Blum relates, "considered her the brightest of his circle." At the thought that her job at Newnham might take her away from her SPR duties, he fretted about doing the work himself: "My intellect will be an inferior substitute."

Nora worked on the "Census of Hallucinations," a project that attempted to survey as many Britons as possible with the following question: "Have you -- when in good health, free from anxiety and completely awake -- had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a human being, or of hearing a voice or sound which suggested a human presence, when no one was there?" In the more credible accounts of such experiences, it was found that "all of the visual hallucinations occurred within 12 hours of the death of the person seen." These hallucinations were dubbed "crisis apparitions."

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In the end, 17,000 Britons and 7,100 Americans (as well as people in other countries) were surveyed for the census. The positive responses were strenuously winnowed down to people who could have had no prior knowledge or suspicion of the death, who showed no trace of "dreams or delirium" and whose accounts could be verified by at least one other person. The usual response to premonitions of a loved one's death is that people often think of friends and relatives and simply forget about all the times when the person doesn't turn out to be dead later on. The SPR tried to zero in on actual hallucinations reported by people who had no other history of uncanny experiences. When Nora ran her statistical calculations on the results, she found that crisis apparitions occur more often than could be attributed to mere coincidence.

Of course, the survey wouldn't hold up to the statistical standards of today's pollsters, but it was a heroic effort to bring some quantifiable order to the mysteries of these surprisingly common ghostly tales. But what did it mean? Nora Sidgwick and some other members thought that all of the phenomena the SPR investigated were telepathic in nature. The crisis apparitions, for example, might result from some wild burst of telepathic force triggered by the trauma of death. Even mediums who seemed to be channeling secrets from the dead were probably picking up the information from other people in the room who knew the deceased.

Other SPR members believed that the spirits of the dead really could speak through mediums like Leonora Piper. This faction was most excited by a complicated three-way psychic relay between Piper in London, a classics lecturer who practiced "automatic" (spirit-directed) writing in Cambridge and (strangely enough) a sister of writer Rudyard Kipling who also did automatic writing in Calcutta, India. Instructions communicated via Piper in Greek and Latin (she knew neither language) seemed to have been understood by the entities communicating via the classics lecturer and the lady in India. This led some researchers to conclude that the disembodied spirits -- deceased SPR leaders, no less -- were using the women as conduits.

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Some, like James and Sidgwick, were never quite persuaded that the society's research pointed toward an afterlife. All James was sure of was that the scientists who condemned him and his colleagues for their efforts were prejudiced in their refusal to even consider investigating the matter. It's true that, as depicted by Blum, the SPR's foes seem extraordinarily vehement, obsessive and vindictive. But it's also true that few people in this account come across as sufficiently "objective," which is what James promised the SPR would be.

Henry Sidgwick, Nora's husband, pursued his studies of the supernatural in part because he feared living in a "non-moral universe." "Without religion," as Blum puts it, "without a Deity promising punishment and reward -- Sidgwick wondered what would bind people to principles of honor and decency." His co-founder, Frederic Myers, harbored a desperate, lifelong love for a woman who had committed suicide, and much of the "evidence" he recorded later on involved communications with her from beyond the grave. (His wife, who only learned of this after his death, refused to allow anything about it to be published.) When the fate of the human race or your own poor broken heart hangs in the balance, it's hard to be objective about anything.

It's also hard to puzzle through the evidence for yourself when by necessity so much is left out of "Ghost Hunters." As a rule, uncanny true stories become less and less astonishing the more you learn about them. Even the SPR is a little whitewashed here. Blum makes no mention of the notorious Ballechin House affair, which occurred during the period she covers in her book. In that fiasco, some society members rented what was reputedly "the most haunted house in Scotland." During the course of their stay, one excitable lady claimed to see apparitions of nuns on the property (not usually part of the house's reputed hauntings, but spectral nuns are a common fixture in British ghost stories). Doubt was cast on her reports and later the whole expedition was ridiculed by one of the participants in the London Times.

The Society for Psychical Research wasn't fatally damaged by these and other scandals. In fact, it continues to this day, and counts luminaries such as philosopher Henri Bergson and British Prime Minister A.J. Balfour among its former presidents. Yet somehow, it hasn't gotten any closer to its goal or to achieving scientific respect. (The problem that the phenomena it studies can't be reliably replicated is, as Blum notes, the chief stumbling block.) James believed this was because "nature is everywhere gothic, not classic. She forms a real jungle, where all things are provisional, half-fitted to each other and untidy." Later, he declared, "I may be dooming myself to the pit in the eyes of better-judging posterity; I may be raising myself to honor. I am willing to take the risk, for what I shall write is my truth, as I now see it."

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It's easy to see this bravura stance as courageous when we know the defiant scientist is right -- and especially when he writes as well as William James, using rhetoric that calls up echoes of Galileo and Darwin. To my mind, the more appropriate coda is Leonora Piper's plain-spoken statement on the bizarre trances and cryptic utterances whose repercussions dominated her adult life: "My opinion is today as it was 18 years ago. Spirits may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know."


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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