Mrs. Piper & the Society for Psychical Research Part 3

[9] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. vi. p. 657.


The hypothesis of fraud--The hypothesis of muscle reading--"Influence."

When phenomena of this nature are related, the first hypothesis that occurs to the reader's mind is that of fraud. The medium is an impostor.

His trick may be ingenious and carefully dissimulated, but it is certainly merely a trick. Therefore, in order to pursue these studies with any good results, this hypothesis must be disposed of once for all.

Now this is not easy. Most men are so made that they have a high opinion of their own perspicuity, but a very unfavourable one generally of that of other men. They always believe that if they had been there they could have quickly discovered the imposture. Consequently, no precaution must be omitted; all safeguards must be employed, and it will be seen that the observers of Mrs Piper's phenomena have not neglected to do this.

Professor James concealed the identity of as many as he could of the sitters whom he introduced to Mrs Piper. Personally, he was soon convinced that fraud had nothing to do with the phenomena. But the point was to convince others. It occured to a member of the Society for Psychical Research that it would be a good plan to cause Mrs Piper to be followed by detectives when she went out, and not only herself, but all the other members of her family. A singular idea, in my opinion.

However, if detectives had not been employed, many people would even to-day believe that it would be possible to clear up the Piper mystery in a very short time, in the most natural way in the world. This is why Dr Hodgson, on his arrival in America, set detectives on the tracks of Mr and Mrs Piper. Absolutely nothing was discovered; Mr and Mrs Piper asked nobody indiscreet questions, made no suspicious journeys, did not visit cemeteries to read the names on graves. Finally, Mrs Piper, whose correspondence is at all times limited, received no letters from Intelligence Agencies.

Later on, the method taken to make sure of her good faith was revealed to Mrs Piper. She was not at all offended; on the contrary, she saw how absolutely legitimate was the precaution. This is another proof of her uprightness and intelligence.

Again, the idea that Mrs Piper could obtain the information she gives by means of inquiries made abroad is _a priori_ absurd to anyone who has studied the phenomena with any care. Her sitters, whom she received under assumed names, to the number of several hundreds, came from all points of the United States, from England, and even from other parts of Europe. The greater number passed through the hands of Professor James and Dr Hodgson, and all necessary precautions were taken that Mrs Piper should see them for the first time only a few moments before the commencement of the trance. Indeed, they were often only introduced after the trance had begun. These precautions have never injured the results. The sittings, at least those which were not spoilt by the medium's state of health, have always been marked by a large number of perfectly accurate details.

If Mrs Piper obtained the information through spies in her employment, these spies would be obliged to send her private details about all the families in the United States and Europe, since she hardly ever knows to whom she will give a sitting the next day. Dr Hodgson arranges for her.

Formerly Professor James did this, at least in a large number of cases.

Now the scientific honesty of Dr Hodgson or Professor James (I mention this only for foreign readers who may not be acquainted with the reputation of these two gentlemen) can no more be suspected than that of a Charcot, a Berthelot, or a Pasteur. Then, what interest could they have in deceiving us? These experiments had cost them considerable sums, not to speak of time and trouble; they have never profited by them.

Again, Mrs Piper is without fortune. She would not have the means to pay such a police as she would need. She is paid for her sittings, it is true; she gains about two hundred pounds a year, but such a police service would cost her thousands. But there was an excellent way of putting the hypothesis of fraud out of question; it was to take Mrs Piper out of her habitual environment, to a country where she knew nobody. This was done. Certain members of the Society for Psychical Research invited her to England, to give sittings in their houses. She consented without any difficulty. She arrived in England on 19th November 1889, _on_ the Cunard Company's steamer _Scythia_. Frederic Myers, whose recent loss is deplored by psychology, should have gone to the docks and have taken her to his house at Cambridge. But at the last moment he was called to Edinburgh, and asked his friend, Professor Oliver Lodge, of whom we have already spoken, to receive Mrs Piper in his stead. Professor Lodge installed her in an hotel with her two little girls who came with her. The same evening Mr Myers arrived, and took her to his house next day.

Experiments at Cambridge began at once. This is what Mr Myers says about them:--[10]

"I am convinced that Mrs Piper, on her arrival in England, brought with her a very slender knowledge of English affairs or English people. The servant who attended on her and on her two young children was chosen by myself, and was a young woman from a country village whom I had full reason to believe both trustworthy and also quite ignorant of my own or my friends' affairs. For the most part I had myself not determined upon the persons whom I would invite to sit with her. I chose these sitters in great measure by chance; several of them were not resident in Cambridge, and except in one or two cases, where anonymity would have been hard to preserve, I brought them to her under false names, sometimes introducing them only when the trance had already begun."

Professor Oliver Lodge in his turn invited Mrs Piper to come and give sittings at his home in Liverpool. She went, and remained from 18th December to 27th December 1889. During this time she gave at least two sittings a day, which fatigued her much. Professor Lodge gave up for the time all other work to study her. He enumerates at length all the precautions he took to prevent fraud. He also declares that Mrs Piper, who was perfectly aware of the watch kept upon her, never showed the least displeasure, and thought it quite natural. He wondered whether, by chance, she might not have among her luggage some book containing biographies of men of the day, and asked permission to look through her trunks. She consented with the best possible grace. But Professor Lodge found nothing suspicious. Mrs Piper also handed over to be read the greater number of the letters she received; they were not numerous; about three a week. The servants in the house were all new; they knew nothing of the family's private affairs, and thus could not inform the medium about them. Besides, Mrs Piper never tried to question them. Mrs Lodge, who was very sceptical at first, kept guard over her own speech, so as not to give any scraps of information. The family Bible (on the first pages of which, according to custom, memorable events are recorded) and the photographic albums were locked away. Professor Lodge, like the others, presented most of his sitters under false names.

Finally, he affirms that Mrs Piper's attitude never justified the least suspicion; she was dignified, reserved, and not in any way indiscreet.

In short, during the fifteen years the experiments have continued, all the suggestions made by sceptical and sometimes violent objectors have been kept in view, that the fraud might be discovered, if fraud there were. All has been in vain. The explanation of the phenomena must consequently be sought elsewhere.

As for the trance itself, all those who have seen it agree in saying that it is genuine and in no way feigned.

The hypothesis of fraud being disposed of, recourse has been had to another, which it has also become necessary to abandon--that of the reading of muscular movements. It appears that the thought-readers who exhibit themselves on the platform accomplish their wonderful feats by interpreting, with remarkable intelligence, sharpened by long practice, the unconscious movements of the persons whose wrists they are holding.

Now it is true that formerly Mrs Piper became entranced while holding both hands, or at least one hand, of the sitter. She kept their hands in hers during most of the trance. But Professor Lodge says this was far from being always the case. She often dropped the sitter's hands and lost contact with them for half an hour at a time. Phinuit, or some other control, nevertheless continued to furnish exact information.

Shall we say that while he was holding hands he had laid in a provision of knowledge for the whole half-hour? Seriously we cannot.

But as this objection had often been made, the sitters endeavoured to avoid contact with the medium. For a long time Mrs Piper has fallen into the trance without holding anyone's hand. Her whole body reposes, plunged in a deep sleep, except the right hand, which writes with giddy rapidity and only rarely endeavours to touch the persons present.

Professor Hyslop, in the report which has just appeared,[11] affirms that he avoided the slightest contact with the medium with all possible care, and yet we shall see farther on how exact were the facts he obtained, since he believes that he has established the identity of his dead father without the possibility of a doubt. Therefore the hypothesis of thought-reading by means of muscular indications must also be put aside.

Finally, Phinuit affirms that the objects presented to him, and which he touches, furnish him with information about their former possessors, thanks to the "influence" such persons have left on the articles; and in a multitude of cases we should be almost forced to admit that it may be so. But here we are already plunged into depths of mystery. What can this "influence" be? We know nothing about it. Must we believe in it?

Must we believe Phinuit when he says that he obtains his information sometimes from the "influence" left upon the objects, sometimes directly from the mouths of the disembodied spirits? Before reaching that point, other hypotheses must be examined.


[10] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. vi. p. 438.

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


A sitting with Mrs Piper--The hypothesis of thought-transference--Incidents.

The reader may not be displeased to have a specimen of these strange conversations between human beings and the invisible beings, who assert that they are the disincarnated spirits of those who day by day quit this world of woe. It will not be difficult to give the reader a specimen of them. At least one half of the fourteen or fifteen hundred pages dedicated to the Piper case in the _Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research_ are composed of reports of sittings, either taken down in shorthand or given in great detail. In some of these reports even the most insignificant exclamations of those present are noted.

I have chosen the 47th of the sittings which took place in England, not because it is peculiarly interesting, but because Professor Lodge's published report of it is not too long, and I have no room for more extended developments.

The account of this sitting will perhaps disappoint some readers.

"What!" they will say, "is that all that spirits who return from the other world have to say to us? They talk as we do. They speak of the same things. They are not spirits." This conclusion would perhaps be too hasty. I do not assert that they are spirits or that they return from another world. I know nothing about it. But if this other world existed we should expect that there would not be an abyss between it and our own. Nature makes no leaps. That is surely a true principle in, and for, all worlds.

We have a means, although an imperfect one, of endeavouring to discover if the communicators are really returning spirits. It is to ask them to prove their identity by relating as large a number of facts as possible concerning their life upon earth. The investigators of the Piper case have for fifteen years devoted themselves to this task, apparently easy, in reality difficult and ungrateful.

In the earlier experiments in the Piper case the conversation almost always takes place between the sitters and Dr Phinuit. Dr Phinuit does not willingly give up his post, though he does so sometimes. When he is giving information which he says he has received from other spirits he sometimes talks in the third person; sometimes, on the contrary, he reports word for word in the first person. This detail must not be forgotten in reading the reports. The following is a report of the 47th sitting in England.

The sitters are Professor Oliver Lodge and his brother Alfred Lodge. The latter takes notes. The phrases between parentheses are remarks made by Professor Lodge after the sitting.[12]

Phinuit.--"Captain,[13] do you know that as I came[14] I met the medium going out, and she's crying. Why is that?"

O. L.--"Well, the fact is she's separated from her children for a few days and she is feeling rather low about it."

Phinuit.--"How are you, Alfred? I've your mother's influence strong.

(Pause.) By George! that's Aunt Anne's ring (feeling ring I had put on my hand just before sitting) given over to you. And Olly dear,[15]

that's one of the last things I ever gave you. It was one of the last things I said to you in the body when I gave it you for Mary. I said, 'For her, through you.'" [This is precisely accurate.]

O. L.--"Yes, I remember perfectly."

Phinuit.--"I tell you I know it, I shall never forget it. Keep it in memory of me, for I am not dead. Each spirit is not so dim (?) that it cannot recollect its belongings in the body. They attract us if there has been anything special about them. I tell you, my boy, I can see it just as plain as if I were in the body. It was the last thing I gave you, for her, through you, always in remembrance of me." (Further conversation and advice ending, "Convince yourself,[16] and let others do the same. We are all liable to mistakes, but you can see for yourself. There's a gentleman wants to speak to you.")

Mr E.[17]--"Lodge, how are you? I tell you I'm living, not dead. That's me. You know me, don't you?"

O. L.--"Yes, delighted to see you again."

Mr E.--"Don't give it up,[18] Lodge. Cling to it. It's the best thing you have. It's coarse in the beginning, but it can be ground down fine.

You'll know best and correct (?). It can only come through a trance. You have to put her in a trance. You've got to do it that way to make yourself known."

O. L.--"Is it bad for the medium?"

Mr E.--"It's the only way, Lodge. In one sense it's bad, but in another it's good. It's her work. If I take possession of the medium's body and she goes out, then I can use her organism to tell the world important truths. There is an infinite power above us. Lodge, believe it fully.

Infinite over all, most marvellous. One can tell a medium, she's like a ball of light. You look as dark and material as possible, but we find two or three lights shining. It's like a series of rooms with candles at one end. Must use analogy to express it. When you need a light you use it, when you have finished you put it out. They are like transparent windows to see through. Lodge, it's a puzzle. It's a puzzle to us here in a way, though we understand it better than you. I work at it hard. I do. I'd give anything I possess to find out. I don't care for material things now, our interest is much greater. I'm studying hard how to communicate; it's not easy. But it's only a matter of a short time before I shall be able to tell the world all sorts of things through one medium or another. [And so on for some time.] Lodge, keep up your courage, there's a quantity to hope for yet. Hold it up for a time.

Don't be in a hurry. Get facts; no matter what they call you, go on investigating. Test to fullest. Assure yourself, then publish. It will be all right in the end--no question about it. It's true."

Chapter end

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