Mrs. Piper & the Society for Psychical Research Part 6

Dr C. W. F., of whom we have spoken above, asks Phinuit to describe his physical state for him, and Phinuit describes it perfectly. But here, evidently, seeing that C. W. F. was a doctor, and must have known about himself, we may only be concerned with thought-transference. Being curious, Dr C. W. F. asked Phinuit how many years he had to live.

Phinuit replied by counting on his fingers in French up to eleven. This happened in 1889. If the prophecy was fulfilled, Dr C. W. F. must have gone to rejoin his colleague in the other world. It would be interesting to know whether this is the case.

In general, the other doctors who have had sittings with Mrs Piper find more fault with Dr Phinuit's prescriptions than with his diagnosis. They blame the prescriptions as being more those of a herbalist than a doctor. This would not be a great reproach. If a Dr Phinuit has really existed, he must have practised fifty or sixty years ago, and must have studied at the beginning of the last century. Therapeutics of that epoch differed considerably from those of the present day. For this reason Dr C. W. F. asks whether Dr Phinuit's medical knowledge really exceeds what Mrs Piper might have read in a manual of domestic medicine. As far as the diagnosis is concerned, his knowledge assuredly exceeds this.

Dr C. W. F. reports a fact which, though it would not prove Dr Phinuit's medical ignorance, would once more prove his ignorance of French, and even of the Latin of botanists. Dr F. asked,[37] "Have you ever prescribed _chiendent_ or _Triticum repens_?" using both the French and Latin names. Phinuit seemed much surprised, and said, "What is the English of that?" It is certain that a French doctor, and, above all, a doctor in the beginning of the last century, must know _chiendent_, and even _Triticum repens_.

Mrs Piper told Dr Hodgson that Phinuit had often been shown medicinal plants, and had been asked their names, and that he had never made a mistake. Dr Hodgson procured specimens of three medicinal plants from one of his friends. He himself remained entirely ignorant of their names and uses. Phinuit carefully examined the plants, and was unable to indicate their names or their uses. But neither would this incident prove much. The living practitioners who could not be caught in this way must be rare.

I will give two or three of Phinuit's diagnoses as examples. I will choose those which have been given to Dr Hodgson about himself, as my readers now know him well.

At one of the first sittings[38] Dr Hodgson had with Mrs Piper, Phinuit pronounced the following judgment on his physical constitution, "You are an old bach (bachelor), and will live to be a hundred." And he added that Dr Hodgson had at the time a slight inflammation of the nasal membranes, though there was no external sign to guide him.

On another occasion Dr Hodgson asked him a question about a pain he had had but which he no longer felt. Phinuit was evasive at first, saying, "I have told you already that you are perfectly well." He then passed his hand over Dr Hodgson's left shoulder, placed his finger under the left shoulder-blade scapula, on the exact spot where the pain had been, and said it must have been caused by a draught, which was probably true.

Another time, Dr Hodgson complained of a pain, without explaining where.

Phinuit instantaneously put his finger on the painful spot, below the chest. He said at first that the pain was caused by indigestion, but then corrected himself spontaneously and said it was caused by a muscle strained in some unusual exercise. Dr Hodgson had not thought of this explanation; but it was true that, two days before, when going to bed, and after some weeks' interruption, he had exercised himself with bending his body backwards and forwards. The pain appeared next day.

Phinuit ordered applications of cold water on the painful spot, and friction with the hand. Naturally there exist other diagnoses more complicated and extraordinary than those I have quoted.

In terminating this study of Phinuit, I must return to the eternal question--Is Phinuit a different personality from Mrs Piper, or is he only a secondary personality? None of those who have studied the question closely have ventured to decide it categorically. There is no so clearly defined distinction between the normal personality and the secondary personalities which have so far been studied as there is between Mrs Piper and Phinuit. In fact, the medium and her control have not the same character, nor the same turn of mind, nor the same information, nor the same manner of speech. It is not so with normal and secondary personalities. Our personality may split into fragments, which, at a cursory glance, may appear to be so many different personalities. But when these fragments are closely studied numerous points of contact are found. When suggestion is added to this segregation, the separation between the normal and secondary personalities is even more emphatic. But then there are traces of automatism present which are not to be found in Phinuit. He seems to be as much master of his mental faculties and of his will as you or I.

Finally, if we consider that many of Mrs Piper's controls carry the love of truth further than Phinuit, that they have succeeded in proving their identity in the eyes of their intimates, who were none the less sceptics to begin with; if we consider the George Pelham and Hyslop cases, among others, which we shall fully discuss a little further on, we shall be almost tempted to let Phinuit benefit by the doubt about his colleagues, and to believe that he is really a consciousness different from that of Mrs Piper.


[32] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. vi. p. 520.

[33] _Ibid._, vol. viii. p. 50.

[34] _Proc. of the S.P.R._, vol. viii. p. 98.

[35] _Proc. of S.P.R._, part xxi. vol. viii. p 51.

[36] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. vi. p. 449.

[37] _Proc. of S.P.R._, vol. viii. p. 51.

[38] _Ibid._


Miss Hannah Wild's letter--The first text given by Phinuit--Mrs Blodgett's sitting--Thought-reading explains the case.

There is a case of which I shall speak with some detail in this chapter, for three reasons:--(1) The good faith of the experimenters being unquestioned, if the experiment had succeeded we should certainly have had a first step towards proof of a future life. Experiments of this kind must be arranged if the desired end is to be attained. Even if only one out of ten were successful, we should have established a method of procedure, and should certainly in time discover the truth. (2) This example will once again show the reader the character of Phinuit, who hesitates at no invention, and risks being caught in the act of imposture sooner than own to his ignorance or incapacity. (3) The reader will find in it examples of the untrue assertions which are found in all the bad sittings.

This dishonesty of Phinuit certainly complicates the problem singularly.

But I wish to present it as it actually is, with its dark and bright sides. Science must endeavour to explain both.[39]

Miss Hannah Wild died on July 28, 1886. She was a strong Baptist, and remained so to her last moments. About a year before her death a Boston spiritualist paper published a message supposed to have come from her dead mother. Miss Hannah Wild was much struck by it.

Her sister advised her to try the following experiment. Miss Hannah Wild should write a letter whose contents she alone knew, and when she died, she should return, if not prevented by circumstances stronger than her will, and communicate the contents of the letter to her sister through some medium. The letter would only be opened when some message bearing all the marks of authenticity should arrive.

This was done. Hannah Wild wrote the letter, sealed it and enclosed it in a tin box. It was understood that no mortal hand was to touch it.

When giving it to her sister she said, "If I can come back it will be like ringing the City Hall bell!"

Mrs Blodgett, Hannah Wild's sister, adds, "Hands have never touched that letter; it was in my husband's safe. When I sent it to Professor James I took it out with scissors."

Mrs Blodgett having, in the last half of 1886, seen Professor James's name in a journal concerned with Psychical Research wrote to him and told him the above circumstances. In consequence he tried to get the letter read through Mrs Piper. He sent her, not the letter, of course, but a glove which Miss Hannah Wild had worn on the day she wrote the letter, and the lining of her hat.

Mr J. W. Piper, Mrs Piper's father-in-law, acted as sitter. Phinuit took his time, and tried for the contents of the letter during several sittings. The result was a long dramatic elucubration, which reminds us involuntarily of certain of Mlle. Smith's subliminal productions. I will give three paragraphs of it. The remarks between parentheses are Mrs Blodgett's; the reader will appreciate the facts by the light the remarks throw upon them. However, it may not be useless to remark that Phinuit found Miss Hannah Wild's exact name, which had been carefully hidden from him.

1. "Dear Sister,--In the bottom of my trunk in the attic with my clothes I have placed a little money and some jewels, given to me, as you know, by mother, and given to her by grandfather, who has now passed away.

Bessie, I now give to you; they are all I have, I wish I could have more. It has grieved me not a little not to have given the Society something, but as you know, sister, I am unable to do so. If it be possible I will give them my presence in spirit." (Sister left no trunk.

Never lived in any house with an attic. Mother never gave her any jewels. Mother's father died in 1835. Mother died in 1880, and gave all her jewels to me. These jewels had previously been given to mother by myself. Sister left money, and could have given the Society some had she chosen to do so.)

2. "The table-cover which I worked one year ago I want you to give sister Ellen, John's wife. The reason I did not dispose of them before will be a satisfactory proof of spirit return. My dearest sister, should you ever marry, as I think you will, take the money and use it as you think best, to buy a wedding outfit." (She never worked a table-cover. I worked one and gave her. Brother John died when five years old. There is no one by the name of Ellen connected with the family. She did think I would marry, but knew that I had plenty of money to buy an outfit.)

3. "Do not dress in mourning for me, for if it be true the spirit can return I want to see you dressed in light, not black. Not for me now, my dear sister Bessie. Try to be cheerful and happy through your married life, and when you hear from me--this for you a copy, 'remember sister Hannah is not dead, only passed out of the body.' I will give you a beautiful description of our life there and of my darling mother if I see her." (Hannah always wore black, and often said it would be wicked for me to take it off, for my child always said, "Mamma, you will always wear black for me," and I have worn black for twenty years, ever since my child died.)

And so forth.

Phinuit's elucubrations were six good manuscript pages long. Except Hannah Wild's name everything was wrong. And yet Mr J. W. Piper affirms that during all the sittings he had the feeling that he was talking to the spirit of Miss Hannah Wild. Phinuit was asked for a description of the communicator; all the details were false. After this it is unnecessary to say that the letter Miss Hannah Wild had written before her death, when opened by Professor James, after receiving the Phinuit letter, differed totally from that document.

So far the Blodgett-Wild case is on the whole commonplace. Phinuit lied when he pretended to communicate with Hannah Wild's spirit; for there is no more reason here than elsewhere to suppose conscious fraud on Mrs Piper's part. But this is the point at which the case becomes interesting, and where it may perhaps throw some light on Phinuit's manner of procuring information, and on the character of Phinuit himself. If we judged only from this case, it would seem that Phinuit was merely a secondary personality of Mrs Piper, possessing the extraordinary power of reading people's minds unhindered by distance.

But let us say at once that a number of other cases render the problem much more complex. The conclusion to be drawn from what follows is, that if Phinuit is really what he asserts that he is, he does not draw his information only from disincarnated spirits, whom he is supposed to perceive objectively; he also reads the minds of the living, and with the information he finds there he creates personages, apparently life-like, and bearing a strong resemblance to deceased persons.

On the 30th of May 1888[40] Mrs Blodgett in person had a sitting with Mrs Piper. The time was fixed by Dr Hodgson, who took care, as usual, not to name the future sitter, and not to give any hint of her identity.

In my eyes this sitting is remarkable. Mrs Blodgett, with great good sense, sums it up thus: "All the details which were in my mind Phinuit gave exactly. On all the points of which I was ignorant he gave false replies, or said nothing."

During the whole sitting Phinuit asserted that he was literally repeating the words of Miss Hannah Wild, present. I shall quote the most typical incidents. The remarks between parentheses are taken from Mrs Blodgett's comments.

Hannah Wild.[41]--"Bessie, Betsie Blodgett, my sister. How glad I am to see you! I am Anna, Hannah, your sister, Hannah Wild. How's father and all the folks? Oh, I am so glad to see you!" (All this time Mrs Piper kept on slapping me with her hand just like sister. When she died my name was not Blodgett but Bessie Barr.)

H. W.--"Saw you once before in that audience. Threw a message at you."

(Four weeks after sister's death, John Slater, a medium, said, pointing to me amongst a large audience, "There is a lady here who wants to have you know she is here. She says she will tell you what is in that paper soon.")

H. W.--"How's the Society, Lucy Stone and all of them?" (Lucy Stone is the editor of the _Woman's Journal_, and wrote a piece about sister when she died.)

H. W.--"My photo in that bag."

Mrs Blodgett had brought a bag containing several things which had belonged to her sister. Mrs Piper tried to open it, but could not. It seems that Miss Hannah Wild, living, could only open the bag with difficulty. Mrs Blodgett opened it. The so-called Hannah Wild threw the objects out pell-mell, saying, "Picture of mine in here." This was so.

Now this photograph was the only thing in the bag which Mrs Blodgett did not know was there; she had slipped her sister's will into an envelope in which the photograph already was, but she had not consciously noticed it was there. Her subconsciousness had probably been more perspicacious, and it is from that Phinuit had probably drawn the detail; at least unless he has the power of seeing certain things through opaque bodies.

H. W.--(Takes her will, which she had shaken out of the envelope containing the photograph.) "This is to you. I wrote it and gave it to you. That was my feelings at the time I wrote it. You did not think as I did. You made me feel sad sometimes. But you did take good care of me. I always felt there was something that would never part us. Do just as I told you to. You remember about my dress? Where's my comb? You remember all about my money? I told you what to do with that. That ain't written in this paper. I told you that on my death-bed." (All this is correct, except that I know nothing about a comb. The will disposed of her books and dresses and all her things, except her money.)

H. W.--"How is Alice?"

Chapter end

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