Mrs. Piper & the Society for Psychical Research Part 2

It was he again who discovered the unconscious[4] frauds of Eusapia Paladino during the sittings which this Italian medium gave at Cambridge. When such a man, after long study of Mrs Piper's phenomena, affirms their validity, we may believe him. He is not credulous, nor an enthusiast, nor a mystic. I have written of him somewhat at length, because, by force of circumstances, his name will often appear in these pages.

To return to Mrs Piper and the phenomena which specially interest us.

Mrs Piper falls into trance spontaneously, without the intervention of any magnetiser. I shall explain later, at length, what must be understood by "trance."

Professor Charles Richet was one of the persons who had a sitting with our medium while she was staying at Cambridge. He describes the trance in these terms:--

"She is obliged to hold someone's hand in order to go into a trance. She holds the hand several minutes, silently, in half-darkness. After some time--from five to fifteen minutes--she is seized with slight spasmodic convulsions, which increase, and terminate in a very slight epileptiform attack. Passing out of this, she falls into a state of stupor, with somewhat stertorous breathing; this lasts about a minute or two; then, all at once, she comes out of the stupor with a burst of words. Her voice is changed; she is no longer Mrs Piper, but another personage, Dr Phinuit, who speaks in a loud, masculine voice in a mingling of negro patois, French, and American dialect."

Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S., well-known among English men of science, and at the time Professor of Physics at Liverpool, describes the opening of the trance in very nearly the same words as Professor Richet in the remarkable report which he published in 1890 on the sittings he had with Mrs Piper. He also notices the slight epileptiform attack, although he adds that he is not "pretending to speak medically."[5]

The Phinuit personality, of which Professor Richet speaks in the passage above quoted, is what the Spiritualists call a "control." By "control"

is meant the mysterious being who is supposed to have temporarily taken possession of the organism of the medium. Are these controls only secondary personalities, or are they, as they themselves declare, disincarnated human spirits, spirits of dead men who come back to communicate with us by using an entranced organism as a machine? In either case they must have a name. Phinuit has been one of Mrs Piper's principal controls, but he is far from having been the only one. On the contrary, they have been legion, and, what is strange, these controls appear to be personalities as distinct from each other as possible, each with his own style of language, his belief, his opinions, his tricks of speech or manner.

Mrs Piper's trance has changed its aspect a little with the development and perfecting of her mediumship. Formerly the controls communicated only by using her voice; then some of them began to write. In some of the sittings one personality communicated through the voice, while another, entirely different, and speaking of utterly different matters, communicated simultaneously in writing. For some years now the controls have only communicated in writing, and have used the right hand only.

The right arm of the medium is in lively movement, while the rest of her body lies inert, leaning forward upon cushions.

In a long report which has just appeared,[6] Mr James Hyslop, Professor of Logic and Ethics at the University of Columbia, in the State of New York, describes the beginning of the trance in detail as it now takes place. At the first sitting he had with Mrs Piper he seated himself more than a yard from her, in a position which enabled him to observe attentively all that happened.

The medium remained quietly seated in an armchair for three or four minutes. Then her head shook and her right eyebrow twitched; all this time she was trimming her nails. She then leant forward on the cushions which had been placed on the table for her head to rest upon, and closed and rubbed her eyes; her face was slightly congested for some instants.

She opened her eyes again, and the ocular globes were visible, slightly upturned; she blew her nose, and began to attend to her nails again. Her gaze became slightly fixed. Her face once more changed; the redness disappeared, and she grew slightly pale. The muscles relaxed, the mouth was a little drawn on one side, and the stare became more fixed. Finally her mouth opened and the trance came on gently, like a fainting fit, without struggle. Then Dr Hodgson arranged her head on the cushions with her right cheek on her left hand, so that her face was turned to the left, and she was unable to see her right hand, which soon began to write automatically.

During the trance the sensibility of Mrs Piper's organism to exterior excitation is much blunted. If her arm is pricked, even severely, it is withdrawn but slowly; if a bottle of ammonia is put to her nostrils, and care is taken that it is inhaled, her head does not betray sensation by the least movement. One day, if I am not mistaken, Dr Hodgson put a lighted match to her arm, and asked Phinuit if he felt it.[7]

"Yes," replied Phinuit, "but not much, you know. What is it? Something cold, isn't it?"

These and numerous other experiments show that if sensibility is not abolished, it is at least very much blunted.

It might be concluded from the above that Mrs Piper would be an excellent hypnotic subject. She is nothing of the kind. Without being precisely refractory to hypnotism, she is only an indifferently good hypnotic subject. Professor William James of Harvard has made experiments to elucidate this point. His two first attempts to hypnotise Mrs Piper were entirely fruitless. Between the second and third, Professor William James asked Phinuit, during a mediumistic trance, to be kind enough to help him to make the subject hypnotisable. Phinuit promised; in fact, he always promises all that is asked. At the third attempt Mrs Piper fell slightly asleep, but only at the fifth sitting was there a real hypnotic sleep, accompanied by the usual automatic and muscular phenomena. But it was impossible to obtain anything more.

Hypnosis and trance, in Mrs Piper, have no points of resemblance. In the trance, muscular mobility is extreme. In hypnosis, just the contrary is the case. If she is ordered during hypnosis to remember what she has said or done, she remembers. During the trance, the control has more than once been asked to arrange that Mrs Piper should recall, on waking, what she had said; but this has never succeeded. During the mediumistic trance she seems to read the deepest recesses of the souls of those present like a book. During hypnosis there is no trace of this thought-reading. In short, the mediumistic trance and the hypnotic sleep are not one and the same thing. Whatever may be the real nature of the difference, this difference is so great that it strikes the least attentive observer at once.


[4] In the opinion of the chief witnesses of the Cambridge sittings the frauds of Eusapia Paladino were not unconscious. Mr Myers said, in the report to the Society immediately after the sittings:--"I cannot doubt that we observed much conscious and deliberate fraud, of a kind which must have needed long practice to bring it to its present level of skill."--_Journal of Society for Psychical Research_ for 1895, p. 133, _Trans._

[5] _Proc. of the S.P.R._, vol. vi. p. 444.

[6] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. xvi.

[7] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. viii. p. 5.


Early trances--Careful first observations by Professor William James of Harvard University, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

I have already explained on what occasion Mrs Piper had her first trance. Suffering from a traumatic tumour, she had gone to ask advice of a blind medium named Cocke. This medium gave medical consultations, but he also asserted that he had the power of developing latent mediumship.

At this first sitting Mrs Piper felt very strange thrills, and thought she was going to faint. At the following sitting Mr Cocke put his hands on her head. She felt at once that she was on the point of losing consciousness. She saw a flood of light, as well as unrecognised human faces, and a hand which fluttered before her face. She does not remember what happened afterwards. But when she woke she was told that a young Indian girl named _Chlorine_ had manifested through her organism, and had given a remarkable proof of survival after death to a person who happened to be present.

Mrs Piper was therefore really a medium. Her personal friends immediately began to arrange sittings with her. Little by little strangers were admitted to this private circle. Various self-styled spirits communicated by her means in the earlier days. Phinuit, who later took almost sole possession of Mrs Piper's organism, was far from being alone at first; his place was disputed. The first controls, if they themselves are to be believed, were the actress Mrs Siddons, the musician John Sebastian Bach, the poet Longfellow, Commodore Vanderbilt the multi-millionaire, and a young Italian girl named Loretta Ponchini.

At the outset Dr Phinuit, when he appeared, confined himself to diagnosing and giving medical advice. He thought everything else beneath him.

At last, one evening, John Sebastian Bach announced that he and all his companions were about to concentrate their power on Dr Phinuit, and make him the principal control. Naturally we do not know what they did, but it is certain that from that time Dr Phinuit became so much the principal control that he had almost sole possession of Mrs Piper's organism for years. As we shall see, he ceased to confine himself to giving medical consultations. He willingly replied to all questions addressed to him, and he even talked readily on all sorts of subjects without being questioned at all.

The first person of educated intelligence who had an opportunity to examine and study, although somewhat summarily, Mrs Piper's trance phenomena, was Professor William James of Harvard University. In 1886 he made a brief report of them, which he published in the _Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research_. Professor James did not at first recognise all the importance of the Piper case. No shorthand report of the sittings was made, and he did not even take complete notes. However, he assured himself that fraud had nothing to do with the phenomena, but without taking all the minute precautions which others have since taken. He satisfied himself that here was an interesting mystery, and says so in his report, but he left the charge of looking for the key to others. But I shall give an account of the sittings of Professor James, in the first place because it would be improper to neglect even the superficial studies of a man of such eminence, and secondly, because they will give my readers a clear idea of the phenomena.[8]

Professor James made Mrs Piper's acquaintance in the autumn of 1885 in the following way. His mother-in-law, Mrs Gibbens, had heard a friend speak of Mrs Piper, and as she had never seen a medium, she asked for a sitting out of curiosity. Mrs Gibbens, who went sceptical, returned rather impressed. She had heard a number of private details which she believed were unknown outside her family. On the day following Professor James's sister-in-law went in her turn to see Mrs Piper, and obtained even better results than her mother. For example, the inquirer had placed a letter in Italian on the medium's forehead. It must be observed that Mrs Piper is entirely ignorant of that language. Nevertheless, Phinuit gave a number of perfectly correct details about the writer of the letter. The mystery became interesting, as the young Italian who had written it was only known to two people in the whole United States.

Later on, at other sittings, Phinuit gave the exact name of this young man, which he had been unable to do at first.

Professor James's attitude when these facts were related to him can be imagined. He did what most of us do, or have done. He played the _esprit fort_, joked his relatives about their credulity, and thought that women were decidedly deficient in critical spirit. His curiosity was none the less awakened. Some days after, in the company of his wife, and having taken all possible precautions that Mrs Piper should not know his name or intentions beforehand, he went and asked her for a sitting. Intimate details, principally about Mrs James's family, were repeated. Others even more circumstantial were given. What was the least easily obtained was just what could have been learned with the greatest facility if Mrs Piper had acquired these details fraudulently or by normal means, namely, proper names. Professor James was the first to notice a fact which a large number of observers have since remarked. The impression that the names are shouted to Phinuit by a spirit is unavoidable.

Phinuit, who is to transmit them, hears imperfectly, doubtless on account of his position, which all the controls describe as very uncomfortable and painful--the organism of the medium seems to plunge the controls into a semi-somnolence.

Thus Phinuit mangles the names he repeats. It appears that the communicating spirit is conscious of this and corrects. Phinuit repeats the name thus several times, and very often only succeeds in giving it exactly after several attempts. It even sometimes happens that a name cannot be given all at a sitting, but then it is generally given at a subsequent one.

Thus, at this first sitting of Professor James, the name of his father-in-law, _Gibbens_, was first given as _Niblin_, and then as _Giblin_. Professor James had lost a child a year before. He was mentioned, and his name, _Herman_, was given as _Herrin_. But the details which accompanied the enunciation of the name prevented mistake, on the part of the sitters, about the person intended.

Professor James brought away from this first sitting the conclusion that unless Mrs Piper, by some chance inexplicable to him, knew his own and his wife's families intimately, she must be possessed of supernormal powers. In short, his first scepticism was shaken, and he had twelve further sittings with Mrs Piper in the course of the winter. Moreover, he obtained circumstantial details from relatives and friends who likewise had sittings.

The following are some examples of Phinuit's clairvoyance.[9]

Professor James's mother-in-law had, on her return from Europe, lost her bank-book. At a sitting held soon afterwards Phinuit was asked if he could help her to find it. He told her exactly where it was, and there it was found.

At another sitting, Phinuit said to Professor James, who this time was not accompanied by Mrs James, "Your child has a boy named Robert F. as a playfellow in our world." The Fs. were cousins of Mrs James, who lived in a distant town.

On returning home Professor James said to his wife, "Your cousins the Fs. have lost a child, haven't they? But Phinuit made a mistake about the sex; he said it was a boy." Mrs James confirmed the perfect exactness of Phinuit's information; her husband had been wrong.

At the second sitting which Mrs Gibbens had she was told among other things that one of her daughters, mentioned by name, had at the time a bad pain in her back, to which she was by no means subject. The detail was found to be exact.

On another occasion Phinuit announced to Mrs James and her brother, before the arrival of any telegram, the death of their aunt, which had just occurred in New York. It is true that this death was momentarily expected.

At another sitting Phinuit said to Professor James, "You have just killed a grey and white cat with ether. The wretched animal spun round and round a long time before dying." This was quite true.

Phinuit, again, told Mrs James that her aunt in New York, the one whose death he had announced, had written her a letter warning her against all kinds of mediums. And he sketched the old lady's character, not very respectfully, in a most amusing way.

I quote these examples to give an idea of the kind of information furnished by Mrs Piper's controls. But it must not be believed that this is all. The controls do not need to be entreated to speak. Phinuit is particularly loquacious, and he often talks for an hour on end. His remarks are frequently incoherent, and often also obviously false. But, at the very least, in the good sittings, truthfulness and exactitude much preponderate, whatever may be the source from which Phinuit obtains his facts; whether he gets them from disincarnated spirits, as he asserts; whether he reads them in the consciousness or sub-consciousness of the sitter, or whether they are furnished him by what he calls the "influence" which the persons to whom the objects presented to him belonged have left upon them.

I have forgotten to say that Phinuit asks to have brought to him objects of some sort which have belonged to the persons about whom he is consulted. He feels the objects, and says at once, "I feel the influence of such-a-one; he is dead or he is alive; such a thing has happened to him." Detail follows on detail, for the most part exact.

As I have already said when speaking of Professor James, Phinuit showed intimate knowledge of Mrs James's family. Now, there were no members of the family in the neighbourhood; some were dead, others in California, and others in the State of Maine.

What I have said will suffice to give the reader a first idea of the general features of the phenomena. I shall be able in future, while reporting the facts, to examine as I proceed the hypotheses which they suggest.


[8] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. vi. p. 651.

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