Arthur Conan Doyle

Famous British writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes. President of the College of Psychic Studies, Federation Spirite Internationale and the London Spiritualist Alliance. Between 1885-88 he was invited to take part in table-turning experiments at the house of a patient, General Drayson, a teacher in the Greenwich Naval College, a keen mathematician and a man of scholarly education. He later joined the SPR and carried out a series of experiments with a Mrs. Ball and satisfied himself that telepathy was a fact. As regards survival, in 1902 when he first met Sir Oliver Lodge he had not arrived at a definite conclusion. But Myers' "Human Personality" made a deep impression on his mind, and eventually Doyle became a prominent advocate of the spirit hypothesis and wrote many books on the subject, including his two-volume "The History of Spiritualism".

The Society for Psychical Research: A Criticism

 - Arthur Conan Doyle -

          ANY FULL account of the activities of the Psychical Research Society, with its strangely mingled record of usefulness and obstruction, would be out of place in this volume. There are some points, however, which need to be brought out, and some cases which should be discussed. In certain directions the work of the society has been excellent, but from the beginning it made the capital error of assuming a certain supercilious air towards Spiritualism, which had the effect of alienating a number of men who could have been helpful in its councils, and, above all, of offending those mediums without whose willing co-operation the work of the society could not fail to be barren. At the present moment the society possesses an excellent séance room, but the difficulty is to persuade any medium to enter it. This is as it should be, for both the medium and the cause he represents are in danger when misrepresentation and injurious charges are made as lightly as in the past. Psychical research should show some respect for the feelings and opinions of Spiritualists, for it is very certain that without the latter the former would not have existed.

Amid the irritations of what they regard as offensive criticism Spiritualists must not forget that the society has at various times done some excellent work. It has, for example, been the mother of many other societies which are more active than itself. It has also nurtured a number of men both in London and in its American branch who have followed the evidence and have become whole-hearted advocates of the spirit view. Indeed, it is not too much to say that nearly all the bigger men, the men who showed signs of strong mentality apart from this particular subject, adopted the psychic explanation. Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, Alfred Russel Wallace, Lord Rayleigh, Sir William Barrett, Professor William James, Professor James Hyslop, Dr. Richard Hodgson, and Mr. F. W. H. Myers were all in different degrees on the side of the angels.

There had been a previous society of the same nature, the Psychological Society of Great Britain, which was founded in 1875 by Mr. Serjeant Cox. On the death of this gentleman in 1879 this society dissolved. On January 6, 1882, a meeting was held at the initiative of Sir William Barrett to consider the formation of a new society, and on February 20 it came into being. Professor Henry Sidgwick of Cambridge was elected President, and among the Vice-Presidents was the Rev. W. Stainton Moses. The Council included such representative Spiritualists as Mr. Edmund Dawson Rogers, Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood, Dr. George Wyld, Mr. Alexander Calder, and Mr. Morell Theobald. We shall see in the course of our review of its history how the Society for Psychical Research gradually alienated the sympathies of these members and caused many of them to resign, and how the cleavage thus early begun has gone on widening with the passage of the years.

A manifesto of the society sets out:

It has been widely felt that the present is an opportune time for making an organized and systematic attempt to investigate that large group of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical and Spiritualistic.

Professor Sidgwick, in his first presidential address to the society on July 17, 1882, speaking of the need for psychical research, said:

We are all agreed that the present state of things is a scandal to the enlightened age in which we live, that the dispute as to the reality of these marvellous phenomena - of which it is quite impossible to exaggerate the scientific importance, if only a tenth part of what has been alleged by generally credible witnesses could be shown to be true - I say it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet that the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in an attitude of incredulity.

The attitude of the society, as thus defined by its first president, was a fair and reasonable one. Answering a criticism to the effect that their intention was to reject as untrustworthy the results of all previous inquiries into psychical phenomena, he said:

I do not presume to suppose that I could produce evidence better in quality than much that has been laid before the world by writers of indubitable scientific repute - men like Mr. Crookes, Mr. Wallace, and the late Professor De Morgan. But it is clear from what I have defined as the aim of the society, however good some of its evidence may be in quality, we require a great deal more of it.

The educated world, he pointed out, was not yet convinced, and thus more evidence must be piled up. He did not add that there was abundant evidence already but that the world had not yet troubled to examine it.

Returning to this aspect at the close of his address he said:

Scientific incredulity has been so long in growing, and has so many and so strong roots, that we shall only kill it, if we are able to kill it at all as regards any of those questions, by burying it alive under a heap of facts. We must keep "pegging away," as Lincoln said; we must accumulate fact upon fact, and add experiment upon experiment, and, I should say, not wrangle too much with incredulous outsiders about the conclusiveness of any one, but trust to the mass of evidence for conviction. The highest degree of demonstrative force that we can obtain out of any single record of investigation is, of course, limited by the trustworthiness of the investigator. We have done all that we can when the critic has nothing left to allege except that the investigator is in the trick. But when he has nothing else left he will allege that... We must drive the objector into the position of being forced either to admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse the investigators either of lying or cheating or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy.

The early work of the society was devoted to an experimental investigation of thought-transference, a subject which Sir William (then Professor) Barrett had brought before the British Association in 1876. After long and patient research it was considered that thought-transference, or telepathy, as it was named by Mr. F. W. H. Myers, was an established fact. In the domain of mental phenomena much valuable work has been done by the society, and this has been placed on record in a systematic and careful manner in the society's "Proceedings." Its researches, too, into what are known as "Cross Correspondences" constitute an important phase of its activities. The investigation of the mediumship of Mrs. Piper was also a notable work, to which we shall refer later.

Where the society has been less fortunate has been in its consideration of what are known as the physical phenomena of Spiritualism. Mr. E. T. Bennett, for twenty years the assistant secretary to the society, thus refers to this aspect:

It is a remarkable thing, we are inclined to say one of the most remarkable things in the history of the society, that this branch of inquiry should have been - it is hardly an exaggeration to say - absolutely barren of result. It may also be said that the result has been barren in proportion to the simplicity of the alleged phenomena. As to the moving of tables and other objects without contact, the production of audible raps, and of visible lights, opinion, even within the society itself, to say nothing of the outside intelligent world, is in the same state of chaos as it was twenty years ago. The question of the movement of tables without contact is exactly in the state in which it was left by the Dialectical Society in the year 1869. Even then, the fact of the movement of a heavy dining-room table, untouched by anyone present, and not in the presence of a professional medium, was attested by a number of well-known men. If it was "a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on," when Professor Sidgwick gave his first presidential address, how much more of a scandal is it that now, after the lapse of nearly another quarter of a century, "the educated world as a body should still be simply in an attitude of incredulity." In the whole series of volumes issued by the society, there is no light whatever thrown on these simple alleged phenomena of seeing and hearing. With regard to the higher physical phenomena which imply intelligence for their production, such as Direct Writing and Spirit Photography, some investigation has been made, but to a large extent, though not entirely, with negative results.[1]

[1] "Twenty Years of Psychical Research," by Edward T. Bennett (1904), pp. 21-2.

These sweeping charges against the society are made by a friendly critic. Let us see how Spiritualists of that time viewed its activities. To start from near the beginning, we find early in 1883, a year after the formation of the society, a correspondent writing to Light asking, "What is the distinction between the Society for Psychical Research and the Central Association of Spiritualists?" and also inquiring whether there was any antagonism between the two bodies. The reply is given in a leading article[2] from which we make this extract. With our retrospect of forty years from that date it has an historic interest:

[2] Light, 1883, p. 54.

Spiritualists cannot doubt what the end will be - they cannot doubt that, as time goes on, the Society for Psychical Research will afford as clear and unquestionable proofs of clairvoyance, of spirit-writing, of spiritual appearances, and of the various forms of physical phenomena as they have so successfully afforded of thought-reading. But meanwhile there is a sharp line of distinction between the Society for Psychical Research and the Central Association of Spiritualists. The Spiritualists have a settled faith - nay, more, a certain knowledge - in regard to facts about which the Society for Psychical Research would not yet profess to have any knowledge whatever. The Society for Psychical Research are busy with phenomena only, seeking evidence of their existence... To them the idea of spirit communion, of sweet converse with dear departed friends - so precious to Spiritualists - has no present interest. We speak of them, of course, as a Society - not of individual members. As a Society they are studying the mere bones and muscles, and have not yet penetrated to the heart and soul.

The editor, continuing, takes a dip into the future, though how distant a future it was destined to prove he could not see:

As a Society, they cannot yet call themselves Spiritualists. As a Society, they will, as their proofs accumulate, in all probability become - first, "Spiritualists without the spirits" - and ultimately very like other Spiritualists, with the added satisfaction that in reaching that position they have made good every step in their path as they went along, and have, by their cautious conduct, induced many noble and clever men and women to tread the same way with them.

In conclusion, the correspondent is assured that there is no antagonism between the two bodies, and that Spiritualists are confident that the Society for Psychical Research is doing a most useful work.

The extract is instructive, showing as it does the kindly feelings entertained by the leading Spiritualist organ towards the new society. The prophecy accompanying it, however, has been far from realized. In an exaggerated striving after what was considered to be an impartial, scientific attitude, a certain little group within the society has continued for many years to maintain a position, if not of hostility to, yet of persistent denial of, the reality of physical manifestations observed with particular mediums. It has mattered not what weight of testimony was forthcoming from trustworthy men whose qualifications and experience made them worthy of credence. As soon as the Society for Psychical Research came to consider such testimony, or, more rarely, to conduct an investigation for themselves, either open charges of fraud were levelled against the mediums or possibilities of how the results might have been obtained by other than supernormal means were suggested. Thus, we have Mrs. Eleanor Sidgwick, who is one of the worst offenders in this respect, saying of a sitting with Mrs. Jencken (Kate Fox), held in light reported to be sufficient to read print by, when direct writing was obtained on a sheet of paper supplied by the sitters and placed under the table: "We thought that Mrs. Jencken might have written the word with her foot." Of Henry Slade: "The impression on my mind after about ten séances with Dr. Slade ... is that the phenomena are produced by tricks." Of William Eglinton's slate-writing: "For myself I have now no hesitation in attributing the performances to clever conjuring." One lady medium, the daughter of a well-known professor, described to the author how impossible, and indeed how unconsciously insulting, was the attitude of Mrs. Sidgwick on such an occasion.

Many further quotations to the same effect, and about other famous mediums, could be given, as already stated. A paper entitled "Mr. Eglinton," contributed by Mrs. Sidgwick to the society's Journal in 1886, caused a storm of angry criticism, and a special supplement of Light was devoted to letters of protest. In an editorial comment coming from Mr. Stainton Moses, this newspaper, which in the past had shown such uniform sympathy with the new body, writes:

The Society for Psychical Research have in more than one direction placed themselves in a false position, and when their attention has been drawn to the fact, have allowed judgment to go by default. Indeed, the secret history of "Psychical Research" in England will, when written, prove a very instructive and suggestive narrative. Moreover, we regret to say that (and we say it with a full sense of the gravity of our words), as far as free and full discussion of these matters is concerned, their policy has been an obstructionist one... In these circumstances, therefore, it rests with the Society for Psychical Research itself to decide whether the friction which now unfortunately exists shall be intensified, or whether a modus vivendi between themselves and the Spiritualistic body shall be established. No official disavowal of Mrs. Sidgwick's views as being representative of the Society has, however, yet been made. That is assuredly the first step.

The situation here indicated in the fourth year of the existence of this society has continued with little alteration until the present day. We can see it well described by Sir Oliver Lodge,[3] who says of the society, while of course not agreeing with the dictum: "It has been called a society for the suppression of facts, for the wholesale imputation of imposture, for the discouragement of the sensitive, and for the repudiation of every revelation of the kind which was said to be pressing itself upon humanity from the regions of light and knowledge."

[3] "The Survival of Man" (1909). p. 6.

If this criticism be deemed too severe, it at least indicates the tone of a considerable body of influential opinion regarding the Society for Psychical Research.

One of the earliest public activities of the SPR was the journey to India of their representative, Dr. Richard Hodgson, in order to investigate the alleged miracles which had occurred at Adyar, the headquarters of Madame Blavatsky, who had taken so prominent a part in resuscitating the ancient wisdom of the East and forming it, under the name of Theosophy, into a philosophic system which would be intelligible to and acceptable by the West. This is not the place to discuss the mixed character of that remarkable woman, and it may simply be stated that Dr. Hodgson formed a most adverse opinion of her and her alleged miracles. For a time it seemed that this conclusion was final, but later some reasons were put forward for its reconsideration, the best epitome of which is to be found in Mrs. Besant's defence.[4] Mrs. Besant's chief point is that the witnesses were thoroughly malicious and corrupt, and that much of the evidence was clearly manufactured. The net result is that while this and similar episodes will always cast a shadow over Madame Blavatsky's record, it cannot be said that the particular case was finally established. In this as in other instances the society's standard of evidence, when it wishes to prove fraud, is very much more elastic than when it examines some alleged psychic phenomenon.

[4] "H. P. Blavatsky and the Masters of Wisdom." (Theosophical Publishing House.)

It is more pleasing to turn to the thorough examination of the mediumship of Mrs. Leonora Piper, the celebrated sensitive of Boston, U.S.A., for this ranks amongst the finest of the results achieved by the Society for Psychical Research. It was continued over a period of fifteen years, and the records are voluminous. Among the investigators were such well-known and competent men as Professor William James, of Harvard University, Dr. Richard Hodgson, and Professor Hyslop, of Columbia University. These three were convinced of the genuineness of the phenomena occurring in her presence, and all favoured the Spiritualistic interpretation of them.

The Spiritualists were naturally jubilant at this justification of their claims. Mr. E. Dawson Rogers, President of the London Spiritualist Alliance, at a gathering of that body on October 24, 1909, said: [5]

[5] Light, 1901, p. 523.

A little event has occurred during the past few days which it is thought calls for a few words from myself. As many of you know, our friends of the Psychical Research Society - or some of them - have come over to our camp. I do not mean to say they have joined the London Spiritualist Alliance - but I mean that some who laughed and scoffed at us a few years ago now proclaim themselves as adherents to our creed; that is, adherents to the hypothesis or theory that man continues to live after death, and that under certain conditions it is possible for him to communicate with those he has left behind.

Well, now, I have a somewhat painful memory of the early history of the Society for Psychical Research. I was, fortunately or unfortunately, a member of its first Council, as was also our dear departed friend W. Stainton Moses. We sat together and we were sadly distressed by the way in which the Council of the Society for Psychical Research received any suggestion about the possibility of demonstrating the continued existence of man after so-called death. The result was that, being unable to endure it any longer, Mr. Stainton Moses and I resigned our position on the Council. However, time has had its revenges. At that time our friends professed to be anxious to discover the truth, but they hoped, and strongly hoped, that the truth would be that Spiritualism was a fraud...

Happily that time, and that attitude, have passed, and we can now regard the Society for Psychical Research as an excellent friend. It has gone assiduously and sedulously to work, and has proved our case - if it needed proving - up to the hilt. First of all we had our good friend Mr. F. W. H. Myers, whose memory we all cherish, and we do not forget that Mr. Myers stated plainly that he had come to the conclusion that the Spiritualistic hypothesis alone accounted for the phenomena he had himself witnessed. Then there is Dr. Hodgson. You will remember, those of you who have been long acquainted with the subject, how earnestly he pursued all who professed Spiritualism. He was a very Saul persecuting the Christians. Yet he himself, by virtue of his investigations of the phenomena occurring in the presence of Mrs. Leonora Piper, came over to our side, and honestly and fearlessly declared himself a convert to the Spiritualistic hypothesis. And now within the last few days we have had a notable volume by Professor Hyslop, of the Columbia University, New York, and published by the Society for Psychical Research - a book of 650 pages, which shows that he too, a vice-president of the Society for Psychical Research, is convinced that the Spiritualistic hypothesis is the only possible hypothesis to explain the phenomena he has witnessed. They are all coming in, and I am beginning almost to have a hope of our good friend Mr. Podmore.

From our vantage ground of twenty odd years later, we see that this forecast was altogether too optimistic. But the work with Mrs. Piper stands beyond challenge.

Professor James became acquainted with Mrs. Piper in 1885, through hearing of the visit of a relative of his who obtained highly interesting results. Though he was rather sceptical, he determined to investigate for himself. He obtained a number of evidential messages. For instance, his mother-in-law had lost her bank-book, but Dr. Phinuit, Mrs. Piper's control, when asked to help in finding it, told her where it was, and the statement proved to be correct. On another occasion this control said to Professor James: "Your child has a boy named Robert F. as a playfellow in our world." The F.s were cousins of Mrs. James and lived in a distant town. Professor James told his wife that Dr. Phinuit had made a mistake in the sex of the dead child of the F.'s, because he had said it was a boy. But Professor James was wrong; the child was a boy, and the information supplied was correct. Here there could be no question of reading the sitter's conscious mind. Many more examples of veridical communications could be given. Professor James describes Mrs. Piper as an absolutely simple and genuine person, and says of his investigation, "The result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world, that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state."

After Dr. Richard Hodgson's death in 1905, Professor Hyslop obtained through Mrs. Piper a series of evidential communications which convinced him that he was indeed in touch with his friend and fellow-worker. Hodgson, for instance, reminded him of a private medium about whose powers the two men had differed. He said he had visited her, adding, "I found things better than I thought." He spoke of a coloured-water test which he and Hyslop had employed to test a medium five hundred miles distant from Boston, and about which Mrs. Piper could know nothing. There was also the mention of a discussion he had had with Hyslop about cutting down the manuscript of one of Hyslop's books. The sceptic may object that these facts were within the knowledge of Professor Hyslop, from whom Mrs. Piper obtained them telepathically. But accompanying the communications there were many evidences of personal peculiarities of Dr. Hodgson which Professor Hyslop recognized.

To enable the reader to judge the cogency of some of the evidence given through Mrs. Piper under the Phinuit control, the following case is extracted:[6]

[6] Proceedings of SPR, Vol. VI, p. 509. Quoted in M. Sage's "Mrs. Piper and the SPR."

At the 45th English sitting [on Dec. 24, 1889], when Messrs. Oliver and Alfred Lodge and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were the sitters, Phinuit suddenly said: "Do you know Richard, Rich, Mr. Rich?"

Mrs. Thompson: "Not well. I knew a Dr. Rich."

Phinuit: "That's him. He's passed out. He sends kindest regards to his father."

At the 83rd sitting, when Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were again present, Phinuit said all at once: "Here's Dr. Rich!" upon which Dr. Rich proceeds to speak:

Dr. Rich: "It is very kind of this gentleman (i.e. Dr. Phinuit) to let me speak to you. Mr. Thompson, I want you to give a message to father."

Mrs. Thompson: "I will give it."

Dr. Rich: "Thank you a thousand times; it is very good of you. You see, I passed out rather suddenly. Father was very much troubled about it, and he is troubled yet. He hasn't got over it. Tell him I am alive - that I send my love to him. Where are my glasses? (The medium passes her hands over her eyes.) I used to wear glasses." (True.) "I think he has them, and some of my books. There was a little black case I had - I think he has that, too. I don't want that lost. Sometimes he is bothered about a dizzy feeling in his head - nervous about it - but it is of no consequence."

Mrs. Thompson: "What does your father do?"

The medium took up a card and appeared to write on it, and pretended to put a stamp in the corner.

Dr. Rich: "He attends to this sort of thing. Mr. Thompson, if you will give this message, I will help you in many ways. I can, and I will."

Professor Lodge remarks about this incident:

"Mr. Rich, senior, is head of Liverpool Post Office. His son, Dr. Rich, was almost a stranger to Mr. Thompson, and quite a stranger to me. The father was much distressed about his son's death, we find. Mr. Thompson has since been to see him and given him the message. He (Mr. Rich, senior) considers the episode very extraordinary and inexplicable, except by fraud of some kind. The phrase, 'Thank you a thousand times,' he asserts to be characteristic, and he admits a recent slight dizziness."

Mr. Rich did not know what his son meant by "a black case." The only person who could give any information about it was at the time in Germany. But it was reported that Dr. Rich talked constantly about a black case when he was on his death-bed.

M. Sage comments:

"No doubt Mr. and Mrs. Thompson knew Dr. Rich, having met him once. But they were quite ignorant of all the details here given. Whence did the medium take them? Not from the influence left on some object, because there was no such object at the sitting."

Mrs. Piper had several controls at various stages of her long career. The original one was a Dr. Phinuit, who claimed to have been a French doctor, but whose account of his own earth life was contradictory and unsatisfactory. Apart from himself, however, his ministrations were most remarkable, and he convinced very many people that he was actually an intermediary between the living and the dead. Some of the objections to him, however, had force, for though it is quite possible that a prolonged experience of otherworld conditions may take the edge off our earthly recollections, it is hardly conceivable that it could do so to the extent which was implied by the statements of this control. On the other hand, the alternative theory that he was a secondary personality of Mrs. Piper, a single strand, as it were, separated from the complete fabric of her individuality, opens up even greater difficulties, since so much was given which was beyond any possible knowledge on the part of the medium.

In studying these phenomena Dr. Hodgson, who had been among the most severe critics of all transcendental explanations, was gradually forced to accept the spiritual hypothesis as the only one which covered the facts. He found that telepathy from sitter to medium would not do so. He was much impressed by the fact that where the communicating intelligence had been deranged in mind before death, the after messages were obscure and wild. This would be inexplicable if the messages were mere reflections from the memory of the sitter. On the other hand, there were cases, such as that of Hannah Wild, where a message sealed up in lifetime could not be given after death. While admitting the validity of such objections, one can but repeat that we should cling to the positive results and hope that fuller knowledge may give us the key which will explain those which seem negative. How can we realize what the laws are, and what the special difficulties, in such an experiment?

In March, 1892, the Phinuit control was largely superseded by the George Pelham control, and the whole tone of the communications was raised by the change. George Pelham was a young literary man who was killed at the age of thirty-two by a fall from his horse. He had taken an interest in psychic study, and had actually promised Dr. Hodgson that if he should pass away he would endeavour to furnish evidence. It was a promise which he very amply fulfilled, and the present author would wish to express his gratitude, for it was the study of the George Pelham records[7] which made his mind receptive and sympathetic until final proofs came to him at the time of the Great War.

[7] Dr. Hodgson's Report. Proceedings of SPR, Vol. XIII, pp. 284-582.

Pelham preferred to write through Mrs. Piper's hand, and it was no unusual thing for Phinuit to be talking and Pelham to be writing at the same moment. Pelham established his identity by meeting thirty old friends who were unknown to the medium, recognizing them all, and addressing each in the tone which he had used in life. Never once did he mistake a stranger for a friend. It is difficult to imagine how continuity of individuality and power of communication - the two essentials of Spiritualism - could be more clearly established than by such a record. It is instructive that the act of communication was very pleasant to Pelham. "I am happy here, and more so since I find I can communicate with you. I pity those people who cannot speak." Sometimes he showed ignorance of the past. M. Sage, commenting upon this, wisely says: "If there is another world, spirits do not go there to ruminate on what has happened in our incomplete life: they go there to be carried away in the vortex of a higher and greater activity. If, therefore, they sometimes forget, it is not astonishing. Nevertheless, they seem to forget less than we do."[8]

[8] M. Sage. "Mrs. Piper and the SPR," p. 98.

It is clear that if Pelham has established his identity, then all that he can tell us of his actual experience of the next world is of the utmost importance. This is where the phenomenal side of Spiritualism gives way to the religious side, for what assurance from the most venerable of teachers, or of writings, can give us the same absolute conviction as a first-hand account from one whom we have known and who is actually leading the life which he describes? This subject is treated more fully elsewhere, and so it must suffice here to say that Pelham's account is, in the main, the same as that which we have so often received, and that it depicts a life of gradual evolution which is a continuation of earth life and presents much the same features, though under a generally more agreeable form. It is not a life of mere pleasure or selfish idleness, but one where all our personal faculties are given a very wide field of action.

In 1898 James Hervey Hyslop, Professor of Logic and Ethics at Columbia University, took the place of Dr. Hodgson as chief experimenter. Starting in the same position of scepticism, he in turn was forced by the same experiences to the same conclusions. It is impossible to read his records, which are given in his various books and also in Vol. XVI of the SPR "Proceedings," without feeling that he could not possibly withstand the evidence. His father and many of his relatives returned and held conversations which were far beyond every alternative explanation of secondary personality or of telepathy. He does not beat about the bush in his conversation, but he says: "I have been talking with my father, my brother, my uncles," and everyone who reads his account will be forced to agree with him. How this society can have such evidence in its own "Proceedings," and yet, so far as the majority of its Council is concerned, remain unconverted to the spiritual view, is indeed a mystery. It can only be explained by the fact that there is a certain self-centred and limited - though possibly acute - type of mind which receives no impression at all from that which happens to another, and yet is so constituted that it is the very last sort of mind likely to get evidence for itself on account of its effect upon the material on which such evidence depends. In this lies the reason for that which would otherwise be inexplicable.

No memory was too small or too definite for the father Hyslop to bring back to his son. Many of the facts had been forgotten and some never known by the latter. Two bottles upon his writing-desk, his brown penknife, his quill pen, the name of his pony, his black cap - people may describe such things as trivial, but they are essential in establishing personality. He had been a strict member of some small sect. Only in this did he seem to have changed. "Orthodoxy does not matter over here. I should have changed my mind in many things if I had known."

It is interesting to note that when on his sixteenth interview Professor Hyslop adopted the methods of the Spiritualists, chatting freely and without tests, he obtained more actual corroboration than in all the fifteen sittings in which he had adopted every precaution. The incident confirms the opinion that the less restraint there is at such interviews the more successful are the results, and that the meticulous researcher often ruins his own sitting. Hyslop has left it on record that out of 205 incidents mentioned in these conversations he has been able to verify no fewer than 152.

Perhaps the most interesting and dramatic conversation ever held through Mrs. Piper is that between her two researchers after the death of Richard Hodgson in 1905. Here we have two men of first-class brain - Hodgson and Hyslop - the one "dead," the other with his full faculties, keeping up a conversation at their accustomed level through the mouth and hand of this semi-educated and entranced woman. It is a wonderful, almost an inconceivable situation, that he who had so long been examining the spirit who used the woman should now actually be the spirit who used the woman, and be examined in turn by his old colleague. The whole episode is worthy of careful study.[9]

[9] "The Psychic Riddle." Funk, p. 58 and onwards.

So, too, is the succeeding message, alleged to be from Stainton Moses. The following passage in it should give thought to many of our more material psychic researchers. The reader can decide for himself whether it is likely to have had its origin in the mind of Mrs. Piper:

This thought we all wish to impress upon you and upon the friends on earth, that there is a difference between the entrance into the Spirit World of those who seek for spiritual unfolding and those who simply seek for scientific knowledge. Dr. Hodgson says that I shall tell you that it was a great error that he kept himself so largely attuned to material life and material things. You will understand he means that he did not move in the realm of the higher or spiritual. He did not view these psychic matters from the standpoint that I did. He sought to base everything mainly on material facts, and did not seek to interpret anything wholly as spiritual. One that comes over as he came over is transplanted from one sphere of life into another like a babe just born. He has been besieged since he is here with messages started from your side. All manner of questions are being carried to him by messengers. This is all in vain: he cannot answer. He repeats that I shall tell you he realizes now that he saw only one side of this great question, and that the lesser important.

Some description of this remarkable medium may interest the reader. Mr. A. J. Philpott says of her:

I found her a comely, well-built and healthy-looking woman of middle age, above the medium height, with brownish hair and a rather good-natured and matronly cast of countenance. She looked like a well-to-do woman without any particularly marked characteristics, either intellectual or otherwise. I had rather expected to find a different type of woman, somebody that would show more evidence of nerves; this woman looked as calm and phlegmatic as a German hausfrau. She evidently never had bothered herself with metaphysical or any other kind of questions of a vague or abstract character. Somehow, she reminded me of a nurse I had seen in a hospital at one time - a calm, self-possessed woman.

Like many other great mediums, such as Margaret Fox-Kane, she was very agnostic as to the source of her own powers, which is the more natural in her case since she was always in deep trance, and had only second-hand accounts from which to judge what occurred. She was inclined herself to some crude and superficial telepathic explanation. As in the case of Eusapia Palladino, her mediumship came on after an injury to the head. Her powers seem to have left her as suddenly as they came. The author met her in New York in 1922, at which time she seemed to have completely lost all her personal gifts, though she still retained her interest in the subject.

The society has devoted an enormous amount of patient work to the consideration of what are known as "cross correspondences." Many hundreds of pages in the society's "Proceedings" are given to this subject, which has aroused acute controversy.

It has been suggested that the scheme was originated on the Other Side by F. W. H. Myers as a method of communication that would eliminate that bugbear of so many psychic researchers - telepathy from the living. It is at least a certainty that while he was on earth Myers had considered the project in a simpler form, namely, to get the same word or message through two mediums.

But the cross correspondence of the SPR is in the main of a much more complicated character. In this, one script is not a mere reproduction of statements made in another; the scripts seem rather designed to represent different aspects of the same idea, and often the information in one is explanatory and complementary of that in another.

Miss Alice Johnson, the Research Officer of the SPR, was the first to notice this link between the scripts. She cites this simple instance:

In one case, Mrs. Forbes's script, purporting to come from her son Talbot, stated that he must now leave her, since he was looking for a sensitive who wrote automatically, in order that he might obtain corroboration of her own writing.

Mrs. Verrall, on the same day, wrote of a fir tree planted in a garden, and the script was signed with a sword and suspended bugle. The latter was part of the badge of the regiment to which Talbot Forbes had belonged, and Mrs. Forbes had in her garden some fir trees, grown from seed sent to her by her son. These facts were unknown to Mrs. Verrall.

Miss Johnson, who made a close study of the scripts coming through Mrs. Thompson, Mrs. Forbes, Mrs. Verrall, Mrs. Willett, Mrs. Piper, and others, thus describes the conclusion to which she came:

The characteristic of these cases - or, at least, some of them - is that we do not get in the writing of one automatist anything like a mechanical verbatim reproduction of phrases in the other. We do not even get the same idea expressed in different ways - as might well result from direct telepathy between them. What we get is a fragmentary utterance in one script, which seems to have no particular point or meaning, and another fragmentary utterance in the other, of an equally pointless character; but when we put the two together, we see that they supplement one another, and that there is apparently one coherent idea underlying both, but only partially expressed in each.

She says[10] - what is by no means the fact, because hundreds of cases to the contrary can be cited - that:

[1] SPR Proceedings, Vol. XXI, p. 375.

The weakness of all well-authenticated cases of apparent telepathy from the dead is, of course, that they can generally be explained by telepathy from the living.

And she adds:

In these cross correspondences, however, we find apparently telepathy relating to the present - that is, the corresponding statements are approximately contemporaneous, and to events in the present which, to all intents and purposes, are unknown to any living person, since the meaning and point of her script is often uncomprehended by each automatist until the solution is found through putting the two scripts together. At the same time we have proof of what has occurred in the scripts themselves. Thus it appears that this method is directed towards satisfying our evidential requirements.

The student who will undertake the immense labour of carefully examining these documents - they run into hundreds of printed pages - may perhaps be satisfied by the evidence presented.

But, as a matter of fact, we find that many able and experienced psychic researchers consider it unsatisfactory. Here are a few opinions on the subject.

Prof. Charles Richet says:

These are certainly well-marked cases of cryptesthesia, but whether there is cryptesthesia, or lucidity, or telepathy, these do not in any way imply survival of a conscious personality.[11]

[11] "Thirty Years of Psychical Research."

It has to be remembered, however, that Richet is not an impartial controversialist, since an admission of Spirit would contradict all the teachings of his lifetime.

Dr. Joseph Maxwell is of the same school of thought as Richet. He says:

It is impossible to admit the intervention of a spirit. We want proof of facts, and the system of cross correspondences is founded on negative facts and is an unstable foundation. Only positive facts have an intrinsic value, which cross correspondences cannot show, not at present, at any rate.

It may be remarked that Maxwell, like Richet, has now come a long way towards the Spiritualistic position.

We find the matter discussed with fitting gravity in the London Spectator:

Even if such things (i.e. cross correspondences of a complex type) were common, might it not be argued that they would only prove that some conscious being was producing them; that they would scarcely prove that the conscious being was "in the spirit"; that they would certainly not prove that he was the particular dead person that he claimed to be? A cross correspondence is a possible proof of organization, not of identity.

It is true that many able men like Sir Oliver Lodge and Mr. Gerald Balfour accept the evidence from cross correspondences. But if these satisfy only a comparative few, then their object has not been achieved.

Here are a few examples of the simpler kind taken from the SPR "Proceedings." As anything from fifty to a hundred printed pages are devoted to a single one of the more complicated cases, it is difficult adequately to summarize them in a brief space, and it is impossible to exaggerate how wearisome they are to the reader in their entirety.

On March 11, 1907, at one o'clock, Mrs. Piper said in the waking stage:


On the same day at 11 a.m. Mrs. Verrall wrote automatically:

"With violet buds their heads were crowned."

"Violaceae odores." (Violet-coloured scents.)

"Violet and olive leaf, purple and hoary."

"The city of the violet..."

On April 8, 1907, the alleged spirit of Myers, through Mrs. Piper, said to Mrs. Sidgwick:

"Do you remember Euripides?... Do you remember Spirit and Angel? I gave both... Nearly all the words I have written to-day are with reference to messages I am trying to give through Mrs. V."

Mrs. Verrall had, on March 7, in the course of an automatic script, the words "Hercules Furens" and "Euripides." And on March 25 Mrs. Verrall had written:

The Hercules play comes in there and the clue is in the Euripides play, if you could only see it...

This certainly seems beyond coincidence.

Again, on April 16, 1907, Mrs. Holland in India produced a script in which came the words "Mors" and "The shadow of death."

On the following day Mrs. Piper uttered the word Tanatos (obviously a mispronunciation of Thanatos - being the Greek word for "death," as Mors is the Latin).

On April 29 Mrs. Verrall wrote a script wholly occupied with the idea of Death, with quotations from Landor, Shakespeare, Virgil, and Horace, all involving the idea of Death.

On April 30 Mrs. Piper, in the waking stage, repeated the word Thanatos three times in close succession.

Here again the theory of coincidence would seem to be far-fetched.

Another cross correspondence concerned with the phrase Ave Roma immortalis is a very lengthy one.

Mr. Gerald Balfour discussing it[12] says that the completed idea was a well-known picture in the Vatican.

[12] SPR Proceedings Vol. XXV., p. 54.

Mrs. Verrall's script gave details of the picture unmeaning to herself, but made clear by the phrase Ave Roma immortalis, which came a few days later in Mrs. Holland's script.

An interesting feature was the apparent understanding by the control of what was being done.

On March 2, when the cross correspondence began, Mrs. Verrall wrote that she would have word sent "through another lady" that would elucidate matters. On March 7, when the cross correspondence ended, Mrs. Holland's contribution was followed by the words: "How could I make it any clearer without giving her the clue?"

Mr. Gerald Balfour considers, with reason, that these two comments show that this cross correspondence was being deliberately brought about.

Sir Oliver Lodge, in commenting on the way the meaning is ingeniously wrapped up in these cross correspondences, says of one of them:

The ingenuity and subtlety and literary allusiveness made the record difficult to read, even when disentangled and presented by the skill of Mr. J. G. Piddington.

This criticism, from one who has been convinced of their veridical character, is sufficient indication that cross correspondences are not likely to make anything more than a limited appeal. To the ordinary Spiritualist they seem an exceedingly roundabout method of demonstrating that which can be proved by easier and more convincing methods. If a man were to endeavour to prove the existence of America by picking up driftwood upon the European shores, as Columbus once did, instead of getting into touch with the land or its inhabitants, it would present a rough analogy to such circuitous methods of investigation.

Apart from the cross correspondence scripts, several others have been closely analysed by the SPR, the most remarkable and convincing being that which has been named "the Ear of Dionysius." It must be admitted that after the lowly and occasionally sordid atmosphere of physical phenomena these intellectual excursions do lift one into a purer and more rarefied atmosphere. The cross correspondences were too prolonged and complicated to ensure acceptance, and had a painful resemblance to some pedantic parlour game. It is otherwise with the Ear of Dionysius. It necessarily takes on an academic tone, since it is a classical subject, handled presumably by two professors, but it is a very direct and clear attempt to prove survival by showing that none save these particular men could have produced the script, and that certainly it was beyond the knowledge or faculties of the writer.

This writer, who chooses to assume the name of Mrs. Willett, produced in 1910 the phrase "Dionysius's Ear. The Lobe." It chanced that Mrs. Verrall, the wife of a famous classical scholar, was present, and she referred the phrase to her husband. He explained that the name was given to a huge abandoned quarry at Syracuse, which was roughly shaped like a donkey's ear. In this place the unhappy Athenian captives had been confined after that famous defeat which has been immortalized by Thucydides, and it had received its name because its peculiar acoustic properties were said to have enabled Dionysius the Tyrant to overhear the talk of his victims.

Dr. Verrall died shortly afterwards, and in 1914 the script of Mrs. Willett began to contain many references to the Ear of Dionysius. These appeared to emanate from the deceased doctor. For example, one sentence ran: "Do you remember that you did not know, and I complained of your classical ignorance? It concerned a place where slaves were kept and audition belongs - also acoustics. Think of the whispering gallery."

Some of the allusions, such as the foregoing, pointed to Dr. Verrall, while others seemed to be associated with another deceased scholar who had passed on in 1910. This was Professor S. H. Butcher, of Edinburgh. Thus the script said: "Father Cam walking arm-in-arm with the Canongate," i.e. Cambridge with Edinburgh. The whole strange mosaic was described by one control as "a literary association of ideas pointing to the influence of two discarnate minds." This idea was certainly carried out, and no one can read the result carefully without the conviction that it has its origin in something entirely remote from the writer. So recondite were the classical allusions that even the best scholars were occasionally baffled, and one of them declared that no minds with which he was acquainted, save only those of Verrall and Butcher, could have produced the result. After careful examination of the records, Mr. Gerald Balfour declared that he was prepared to accept the reputed as "the real authors of this curious literary puzzle." The unseen communicators seem to have got weary of such roundabout methods and Butcher is represented as saying: "Oh, this old bothersome rubbish is so tiresome!" None the less, the result achieved is one of the most clear-cut and successful of any of the purely intellectual explorations of the SPR.

The work of the SPR during recent years has not enhanced its reputation, and it is with reluctance that the author, who is one of the oldest members, is compelled to say so. The central machinery of the society has come into the hands of a circle of men whose one care seems to be not to prove truth but to disprove what seems preternatural. Two great men, Lodge and Barrett, stemmed the tide, but they were outvoted by the obstructionists. Spiritualists, and particularly mediums, look upon the investigators and their methods with aversion. It seems never to have dawned upon these people that the medium is, or should be, inert, and that there may be an intelligent force behind the medium which can only be conciliated and encouraged by gentle sympathy and thoughtful, tactful behaviour.

Eva C, the materializing medium, came from France, but the results were meagre, and excessive exaggerated precautions defeated the end in view. The report in which the committee announce their conclusions is a contradictory document, for whereas the casual reader would gather from it that no results - or none worth recording - were obtained, the text is actually illustrated with photographs of ectoplasmic extrusions exactly resembling in miniature those which had been obtained in Paris. Madame Bisson, who accompanied her protégée to London, at great inconvenience to them both, was naturally indignant at such a result, and Dr. Gustave Geley published an incisive paper in the "Proceedings" of the Institut Métapsychique in which he exposed the fallacies of the investigation and the worthlessness of the report. Professors of the Sorbonne may be excused for handling Eva with no regard for psychic law, but the representatives of a scientific psychic body should have shown greater understanding.

The attack upon Mr. Hope, the psychic photographer, was examined by a strong independent committee and was shown to be quite unsound, and even to bear some signs of a conspiracy against the medium. In this ill-considered affair the society was directly implicated, since one of its officers took part in the proceedings, and the result was chronicled in the official Journal. The whole history of this case, and the refusal of the society to face the facts when they were pointed out to them, leave a shadow upon the record of all concerned.

Yet when all is said and done, the world has been the better for the existence of the SPR. It has been a clearing-house for psychic ideas, and a half-way house for those who were attracted to the subject and yet dreaded closer contact with so radical a philosophy as Spiritualism. There has been a constant movement among the members from the right of negation to the left of acceptance. The mere fact that a succession of the presidents have been professed Spiritualists is, in itself, a sign that the anti-spiritual element was not too intolerant or intolerable. On the whole, like all human institutions, it is open to both praise and censure. If it has had its dark passages, it has also been illuminated by occasional periods of brightness. It has constantly had to fight against the imputation of being a purely Spiritualistic society, which would have deprived it of that position of judicial impartiality which it claimed, but did not always exercise. The situation was often a difficult one, and the mere fact that the society has held its own for so many years is a proof that there has been some wisdom in its attitude; and we can but hope that the period of sterility and barren negative criticism may be drawing to an end. Meanwhile the Psychic College, an institution founded by the self-sacrificing work of Mr. and Mrs. Hewat McKenzie, has amply shown that a stern regard for truth and for the necessary evidential requirements are not incompatible with a human treatment of mediums, and a generally sympathetic attitude towards the Spiritualistic point of view.


The article above was taken from Arthur Conan Doyle's "The History of Spiritualism. Vol. II" (London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1926).

A Response to Doyle's Criticisms of the SPR by its President, Prof. John Poynton
(16 November 2005)

If one is to consider the relationship of the SPR with Spiritualism as a doctrine-based movement, one needs to bear in mind that the SPR was set up as a scientific society which by its very nature is less than enthusiastic about doctrine-based movements of any kind, including the movement that the sceptical CSICOP has developed into. An enthusiastic supporter of a doctrine-based movement, whether it be Spiritualism or CSICOP, must of necessity feel dissatisfied with a seeming blank wall presented by members of the SPR. Bearing this in mind, if one reads, for example, the SPR Proceedings vol. 1 dating from 1882, there's no clear evidence of a supercilious attitude towards survival research, or by extension, towards Spiritualism, even though most of the experimental work was on thought-transference, and the point was made that material coming through mediums could be gained from living minds rather than dead. I'm fairly familiar with Frederick Myers great Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903); here the matter of mediumship was handled with caution, but not with superciliousness. I would say that there is little evident support for Doyle's criticisms in early SPR publications themselves, but of course there probably was friction between individual members (there always has been in any society), and there could have been personal factors that led to Doyle's views. I doubt if anyone can speak with much authority any longer about the personal atmosphere, but I would say that a proselytising Spiritualist, as distinct from someone promoting survival research, would have cause to be disgruntled even now.

I see it as a continuing strength of the Society that it can accommodate an extremely wide range of interpretations of available data, including a critical evaluation of evidence both for and against survival, while keeping doctrine-based movements at arms' length. Beyond that, members of the Society have taken an active interest in the matter of survival, which includes keeping up contact with mediums whether they are professing Spiritualists or not. The Society currently has a Survival Research Committee composed of senior and active SPR members, has two lectures in its lecture programme dedicated to examining the survival of consciousness (the Gwen Tate Memorial Lectures), and has other lectures and study days on and around the topic of survival. Nevertheless it could perhaps still be possible for some disgruntled person to level the same accusations against the SPR regarding Spiritualism as Doyle did, especially if they were Spiritualist activists, so I am inclined to think that Doyle's accusations need not necessarily be taken to be fair and balanced, even if there were regrettable lapses as in the case he lists of a Mr Hope. The Hodgson Report on Blavatsky could be cited as another notorious example, now fortunately set right.


More articles by Arthur Conan Doyle

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