(1) This paper is an expanded version of a lecture
delivered to the American Society for Psychical Research by Professor Ducasse on May 29, 1957. It was published
in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Volume LII,
January 1958, Number 1.
PSYCHICAL RESEARCH - whether felicitously so named or not - is a branch of
inquiry which concerns itself with occurrences that are queer or, as we now
technically say, "paranormal." Some of them may be termed, more specifically, parapsychological; others, paraphysiological; and others, paraphysical. But it
is important that we should anyway be quite clear as to what essentially
constitutes the paranormality of the events we label "paranormal."
1. What marks an event as "paranormal"?
The most illuminating account of this I have seen is the analytical one offered
by Professor C. D. Broad in Section 1 of a recent book, Religion, Philosophy,
and Psychical Research(2). He there points out that "we unhesitatingly take for
granted as the framework within which all our practical activities and our
scientific theories are confined" certain principles which, because of the
confining function they thus perform, he calls the "basic limiting principles"
of all normal thought and action (p. 7).
(2) Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York,
One of them would be that an event cannot "begin to have any effects before it
has happened" (p. 9). And this obviously rules out the possibility of what is
called precognition; that is, the possibility of perceiving today, whether in a
waking vision or in a dream, the concrete details of an event which in fact does
not happen until some hours or days later, and which was unpredictable in any
normal way - for example, the headlines on the front page of next Sunday's
newspaper. Such pre-perception would be paranormal because in all normal
perception the event or object perceived must exist before it can cause us to
Another of the "basic limiting principles" mentioned by Broad is that no person
can come to know the thoughts or feelings of another except through perceived
bodily signs of them - signs such as words, gestures, facial expressions, or the
like. And this "basic limiting principle," if it is valid without exception,
obviously rules out the possibility of telepathy.
Mention of these two "basic limiting principles," out of several others listed
by Broad, is enough to enable us to grasp the meaning of the term "paranormal
event." It is this: A paranormal event is one which conflicts with one or
another of the basic limiting principles of all normal thought and action. It is
an event which ought not to happen at all if the basic limiting principle with
which it conflicts is valid without exceptions. And psychical research is the
branch of inquiry which concerns itself with "ostensibly paranormal events";
that is, with events, alleged to have occurred, "which seem prima facie to
conflict with one or more" of the basic limiting principles (p. 7).
2. Paranormal physical events
The two kinds of occurrences paranormal in this sense which have just been
mentioned, namely precognition and telepathy, belong to the class of "mental" or
"cognitive" phenomena and are now often referred to by the general name of
Extrasensory Perceptions. But another class of paranormal phenomena consists of
those that are of physical kinds; and they are the ones I propose to speak about
more particularly on the present occasion.
Consider, for example, a certain very simple apparatus which anybody can
construct. It consists of a piece of board about four inches square in the
center of which there is a small hole. In it, a small cork has been inserted,
and in the cork a fine needle, point up, about three quarters of an inch high.
On the point of the needle is balanced a sliver of aluminium foil cut out of the
crease of a folded sheet of foil. The needle and the sliver are protected by a
transparent plastic cover, the edge of which fits closely into a groove cut in
the wood, so as to exclude all external air currents (see Figure 1).
Now if any one of us, or all of us together, could, by merely willing, make that
sliver move, then its motion would be paranormal; for it would violate one of
the other basic limiting principles listed by Broad, namely, that an event in a
person's mind - in this case, a volition - cannot "produce directly any change
in the material
world except certain changes in his own brain" (p. 9). Volition to move one's
arm can, directly, cause in the nerve cells of one's brain certain material
changes. These propagate themselves along the nerves leading to the muscles of
the arm and cause them to contract and thereby move the arm. In this indirect
manner, the volition to move the arm causes the arm to move; and its motion may
in turn cause some physical objects other than the body to move - a table, for
instance, or a pencil, etc. But what the basic limiting principle just
considered asserts is that a volition cannot directly cause the table or the
pencil to move, or even the arm of the person concerned. The only physical event
the volition can cause without any intermediary is some change in the nerve
cells of the person's brain.
Yet some people whose testimony is very difficult to dismiss on any ground have
explicitly testified that, under conditions which made dependable observation
possible, they have again and again seen various physical objects moving somehow
without physical contact either direct or indirect with any of the persons
present, and without those objects being acted upon by any of the physical
forces - whether gravitation, magnetism, electricity, or other - which could
normally have caused such objects to move. Such occurrences would be examples of
what is called telekinesis - action at a distance - which is one kind of
paranormal physical event. Other kinds, some of which overlap to some extent,
would be paranormal raps, so-called poltergeist phenomena, levitation, fire
immunity, materialization, and dematerialization.
Paranormal events of physical kinds have during the last twenty-five years been
largely neglected, discounted, or even flatly denied by many persons interested
in psychical research, although this has been the case more in England and in
the United States than on the continent of Europe. Before we turn to an
examination of some of the best attested reports of paranormal physical
phenomena, it is well that we should be clear as to the reasons for this neglect
of kinds of occurrences which, if real, are certainly of great interest.
3. Why paranormal physical phenomena are at present largely neglected
One reason, of course, is that since paranormal physical phenomena are alleged
to be possible in most cases only in darkness or in very subdued light, they
obviously lend themselves to fraud. And fraud, sometimes ingenious and sometimes
crude, sometimes deliberate but sometimes apparently unconscious, has again and
again been detected. Hence, since it is much easier to jump to sweeping
conclusions than to limit oneself to the qualified ones the existing evidence
rationally warrants, reports of paranormal physical phenomena have impatiently
been dismissed as all based on fraud, or mal-observation, or misinterpretation
of what was actually observed.
Another reason is that the mediums in whose presence physical phenomena are
reported to occur are rare; and in addition, that even genuine ones would have
no appetite for the unscientific ways in which purportedly scientific
investigators have often treated mediums - sometimes, for instance, reporting
fraud when in fact it had not been detected but merely suspected. For in such
matters the will to disbelieve is quite as real - especially in scientists since
their status in orthodoxy is at stake - as is the will to believe in addicts of
the marvelous or in bereaved persons. And to satisfy their hunger to believe is
easier, and is an activity more flattering to a medium's ego, than would be the
role of guinea pig in a scientific investigation. Few mediums are intelligent
and educated enough to realize the enormous scientific and philosophical
importance to mankind of the physical phenomena they somehow mediate, if these
are indeed genuinely paranormal.
Another factor which has contributed to turn the attention away from physical
paranormal phenomena is the policy - deliberately adopted by some psychical
researchers but very naïve both logically and psychologically - of ignoring
thenceforth any medium who is believed to have been detected in fraud. This
policy is logically naïve because of its blindness to the fact that what is of
paramount scientific importance about a medium's purportedly paranormal physical
phenomena is not whether all of them or even most of them are genuine, but
whether some of them, even if only a few, are so.
But that policy is naïve also psychologically, in its tacit moralistic
assumption that mediums can be classified as either honest or dishonest, and in
assuming still more naïvely that dishonest ones cannot have any genuinely
paranormal powers. This is as unrealistic psychologically as it would be to
classify business men as either honest or dishonest, and to assume still more
unrealistically that a dishonest one cannot have any but adulterated goods to
sell. If something he sells is to be had nowhere else and one wants it if it be
what he alleges it to be, then the sensible thing to do is to examine it
carefully before accepting it, not to turn away from his door on the high moral
ground that the seller is known not to be a perfect gentleman, always completely
honest. As prospectors say, "Gold is where you find it"; and the "where" turns
out as often as not to be an unsavory place.
Highly instructive in this connection is a recent book, Clock Without Hands, by
Ronald Edwi(3). The author confesses that for years he practised fraud as a
medium purporting to bring to the bereaved communications from the spirits of
their dead; whereas the information which made his messages convincing was
actually obtained by him from the bereaved themselves through the use of powers
of extrasensory perception which - as in the case of the paranormal powers of Palladino and more recently of Hurkos - came to him, he says, as unexpected
effects of an injury to his head when he was a boy. Whether or not one accepts
his claim to genuine possession of these powers, he does at all events paint a
very realistic picture of the psychological pressure to deceive to which would
be subjected a person who has them, who is made by them queer enough to
incapacitate him for ordinary jobs, and who then faces a hundred bereaved,
lonely people, desperately seeking reunion with their dead. "Is it," he asks,
"so great a sin to give it them? It is easy enough... just one little cheat to
comfort some poor soul" (p. 73). How many of us are ready to swear that if
were in the predicament he depicts, if our paranormal powers were sporadic, and
if we were dependent on the exhibition of them for a living, we would
nonetheless remain 100 per cent honest?
(3) Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1955.
Another reason still for the contemporary disinterest of psychical researchers
in physical phenomena of mediumship is the quite legitimate desire for
repeatable experiments. This desideratum, unfortunately, is seldom met by
physical and indeed even by mental paranormal phenomena. The card-calling and
dice-throwing experiments, on the other hand, have gone some way towards
repeatability; and the prestige of the word, "quantitative," which has been
applied to them, has contributed to center attention upon them to the exclusion
of mediumistic phenomena.
4. Quantitative experiments
It may not be amiss, however, to point out in passing that, with minor
exceptions, those experiments are not quantitative in the sense this term
usually has in science, that is, in the sense that the phenomena and their
factors are measured and that quantitative laws are then inductively obtained
from the results. What the statistical treatment of the results of the so-called
quantitative ESP and PK experiments quantifies is only the probability that
there is a causal connection between the fact to be guessed and the guess made
of it; i.e., that the guess is not purely a matter of chance but is influenced
paranormally by the fact to be guessed. This, of course, is of great importance
to establish, but does not constitute quantitative study of the phenomena
Let us, however, turn from these preliminary remarks and consider the phenomena.
I shall now cite and quote from a number of the most impressive reports of
physical paranormal phenomena. Later, some comments will be offered on them and
on the questions to which they give rise.
5. Paranormal raps
A frequently reported physical phenomenon is that of raps not being caused in
any of the manners known to be capable of producing similar sounds and impacts
under the same circumstances.
For the fact that paranormal raps, scrapings, and other such noises do occur,
and are accompanied by vibrations which can be felt in the objects rapped, we
have abundant, detailed, and high grade testimony. For example, the testimony
of, among many others, Sir William Crookes who, it may be recalled, was one of
the most eminent physicists of the nineteenth century, was President of the
Royal Society and of the British Association, and editor of the Quarterly
Journal of Science. In an article published in the January 1874 issue of this
periodical(4), he states that he had "almost unlimited opportunity" of testing
these and other phenomena occurring in the presence of Kate Fox. He writes:
seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds
to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard
several rooms off. In this manner, I have heard them in a living tree - on a
sheet of glass - on a stretched iron wire - on a stretched membrane - a
tambourine - on the roof of a cab - and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover,
actual contact is not always necessary; I have had these sounds proceeding from
the floor, walls, etc., when the medium's hands and feet were held ... I have
felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a
sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one
corner. With a full knowledge of the numerous theories which have been started
... to explain these sounds, I have tested them in every way that I could
devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true
objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means."
(4) Reprinted with others of his articles as
a small book, Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism, which has had several
printings. The passage here quoted is from pp. 95-6 of the 1926 edition, Two
Worlds Pub. Co., Manchester.
Of the theories to which Crookes alludes, the chief was that the raps were
produced by the snapping of the knee joints. It is obviously inadequate to
account for the occurrences described by Crookes, which took place in full
light. As it happens, I personally could, in the dark but with my hands and arms
and my feet and knees firmly held, produce raps which would then be very
puzzling to the persons present. They would be due to the exercise of a capacity
I happen to possess, but which most people do not even know exists. It is the
capacity to dislocate my jaw bone, with a very audible cracking sound! But
neither this, nor the capacity to snap my toes, which I also have, nor the more
common capacity to crack the joints of the fingers, comes anywhere near enabling
one to reproduce the facts Crookes describes.
Many other similarly circumstantial reports of paranormal raps could be cited if
space allowed; for example, several by Sir William Barrett, physicist and Fellow
of the Royal Society, in his book, On the Threshold of the Unseen(5). The only
experience I have myself had of hearing raps which, so far as I could judge,
were paranormal was a few months ago, when an elderly lady who was sitting a
foot or two away from me around the corner of a table with her hands on the
table in plain sight, underwent a series of spasms which were accompanied by
showers of raps on the table, such as her foot could not have made.
(5) E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1918, pp.
6. Poltergeist phenomena
I turn next to so-called poltergeist phenomena, which consist not only of raps
but also of disturbances of many other kinds.
The Providence Evening Bulletin for August 17, 1957 has a news item describing
mysterious occurrences which, whatever the explanation of them may be, are
typical of those traditionally called poltergeist phenomena. The item states
that Mr. and Mrs. James Mikulecky, who, with their granddaughter Susan Wall,
aged 15, live in Rest Haven near Wilmington, Ill., reported that
week, a crocheting needle floated from a sewing box on their patio into the
bedroom; a shoehorn from a bathroom medicine cabinet flew into the living room;
... chairs popped up and down - sometimes traveling sixty-five inches into the
air; ... a cabbage and a quarter pound of butter hit Susan ... etc."
The term, Poltergeist, from the German, means a boisterous ghost; but use of it
must not be allowed to beg the question as to whether a discarnate intelligence
is responsible. By Sir William Barrett and generally in psychical research, the
word is used as "a convenient term to describe those apparently meaningless
noises, disturbances and movements of objects, for which we can discover no
assignable cause(6) ... The movement of objects is usually quite unlike that due
to gravitational or other attraction. They slide about, rise in the air, move in
eccentric paths, sometimes in a leisurely manner, often turn round in their
career, and usually descend quietly without hurting the observers. At other
times an immense weight is lifted, often in daylight, no one being near,
crockery is thrown about and broken, bedclothes are dragged off, the occupants
sometimes lifted gently to the ground, and the bedstead tilted up or dragged
about the room ... Stones are frequently thrown, but no one is hurt; I myself
have seen a large pebble drop apparently from space in a room where the only
culprit could have been myself, and certainly I did not throw it" (p. 378, cf.
392). Also noises of scratching, tearing, tapping, ticking, sometimes light,
sometimes loud "like those made by a heavy carpenter's hammer driving nails into
flooring" (p. 393).
(6) Proc. S.P.R., Vol. XXV, 1911, p. 377.
These phenomena generally
"appear to be attached to an individual, usually a
young person, more than to a place ... They appear to have some intelligence
behind them, for they frequently respond to requests made for a given number of
raps ..." (p. 377).
Out of many detailed and well-authenticated reports of such phenomena, space
permits quoting here from only one - that of the "Poona Poltergeist." The report
is by a lady, Miss H. Kohn, German by birth, sister-in-law of Dr. Ketkar and
residing in his house. She is a graduate of London University and held the post
of teacher of European Languages at the Deccan College, Poona, which is
connected with the University of Bombay. The time of the events is 1929, and the
phenomena appeared connected, as usual in such cases, with a young person - in
this instance, Damodar Bapat, eight years old, the adopted son of Dr. Ketkar.
Her account is of special interest as ruling out the hypothesis - natural in
such cases and correct in some of them - that the child concerned is simply
playing tricks. She writes:
"A small class jar containing vegetable extract, which stood among other jars in
the closed cupboard in the dining room, was hurled forcibly from that room into
my bedroom at the moment when Damodar in my presence was undressing for bed. In
order to land where it did the jar must have turned a corner. It broke into many
pieces. So again the next day: at 5:00 p.m., while we were having tea in the
dining room (in the presence of a friend, Miss H.) Damodar stepped into my
bedroom. At the same moment a small screw top jar, in which my brother-in-law
had succeeded in preserving some ink for some days, was hurled from his study in
the front of the house, across the dining room in which we were sitting, into my
bedroom where Damodar stood. It broke, spilling the ink."
Again, on June 24th,
"a man called to see my brother-in-law. I crossed the room
and was in the act of picking up a pad and pencil for him, when an aspirin
bottle which had stood on a shelf in the dining room was suddenly hurled in my
direction by 'an invisible hand' with such tremendous force that I involuntarily
screamed, anticipating a violent crash. However, the bottle fell gently by my
feet, without breaking: only the metal stopper was dented. At the moment when
this happened, my nephew (Damodar) was standing quietly near me."
Father Herbert Thurston, from whose book
Ghosts and Poltergeists(7) these
passages are quoted, mentions that a medical man, Dr. J. D. Jenkins, who had
been called in to observe the boy, reports occurrences even more startling -
stating, for example, that sitting in a closed room alone with the boy, whom he
had placed naked on the bed and covered with a sheet, he "saw the bedclothes
pulled off the bed ... the bed was pulled into the middle of the room, and the
lad actually lifted off the bed and deposited gently on the floor" (p. 146).
(7) Burns Oates, London, 1953, pp. 140-50;
reviewed in this Journal, Jan., 1955.
7. Levitation, telekinesis, experimental psychokinesis
Let us next consider some instances of levitation - a term, from the Latin levis
= light - which is used to designate the rising, unsupported in the air, of the
human body or of various other heavy objects. At least seventy saints or mystics
have been reported to have become levitated on various occasions. The case of
St. Joseph of Copertino in the first half of the seventeenth century is perhaps
the most notable among them because of the definiteness and numerousness of the
accounts of his many levitations, and because of the eminence and diverse
initial biases - skeptical as well as pious - of several of the witnesses who
testified to the occurrence of the phenomenon. An account of them, based on the
statements of the witnesses, may be found in the book, Some Human Oddities, by
Dr. E. J. Dingwall(8). Having had occasion to quote from it in an earlier
lecture, however, I shall not return to it here but will open the subject with a
quaint statement made to the explorer Fosco Maraini by the Princess Pema Choki
Namgyal, of Sikkim, concerning her uncle who, she said, was the most
extraordinary man she had ever met. The statement reads:
"Yes. He did what you would call exercises in levitation. I used to take him in
a little rice. He would be motionless in mid-air. Every day he rose a little
higher. In the end he rose so high that I found it difficult to hand the rice up
to him. I was a little girl, and I had to stand on tiptoe. There are certain
things you don't forget!"(9)
(8) Home & Van Thal, Ltd., London, 1947, pp.
(9) Secret Tibet, Viking Press, New York, 1952, p. 55.
Among the persons who were neither saints nor mystics, and for whose levitations
testimony exists that is both abundant and responsible, none is more famous than
the medium D. D. Home. Sir William Crookes observed him on numerous occasions,
and under circumstances, provided by himself, which made dependable observation
possible. Crookes' statements concerning the levitations both of Home's body and
of various material objects are so detailed and definite, and therefore so
interesting, that they deserve quoting at some length:(10)
(10) The quotations are from statements made
by Crookes in the course of a discussion of a paper by Sir Oliver Lodge at a
meeting of the S.P.R. at the Westminster Town Hall, Friday, Oct. 26, 1894, as
reported in the Journal of the S.P.R., Vol. VI, Nov., 1894, pp. 341-4.
"The best cases of Home's levitations I witnessed were in my own house. On one
occasion he went to a clear part of the room, and after standing quietly for a
minute, told us he was rising. I saw him slowly rise up with a continuous
gliding movement and remain about six inches off the ground for several seconds,
when he slowly descended. On this occasion no one moved from their places. On
another occasion I was invited to come to him, when he rose 18 inches off the
ground, and I passed my hands under his feet, round him, and over his head when
he was in the air. On several occasions Home and the chair on which he was
sitting at the table rose off the ground. This was generally done very
deliberately, and Home sometimes then tucked up his feet on the seat of the
chair and held up his hands in view of all of us. On such an occasion I have got
down and seen and felt that all four legs were off the ground at the same time,
Home's feet being on the chair. Less frequently the levitating power extended to
those sitting next to him. Once my wife was thus raised off the ground in her
chair" (pp. 341-2).
"One of the most striking things I ever saw in the way of movements of
light objects was when a glass water-bottle and tumbler rose from the table.
There was plenty of light in the room from two large salted alcohol flames, and
Home's hands were not near. The bottle and glass floated about over the middle
of the table. I asked if they would answer questions by knocking one against the
other. Immediately three taps together signified 'Yes.' They then kept floating
about six or eight inches up, going from the front of one sitter to another
round the table and answering questions in this manner. Quite five minutes were
occupied by this phenomenon, during which time we had ample opportunity of
seeing that Home was a passive agent, and that no wires or strings, etc., were
in use. But the idea of any such tricks was absurd, as the occurrence was in my
own house, and no one could have tampered with anything in the room, Home not
having been in the room till we all came in together for the séance."
Crookes adds that
"Home always refused to sit in the dark. He said that with
firmness and perseverance the phenomena could be got just as well in the light,
and even if some of the things were not so strong, the evidence of one's
eyesight was worth making some sacrifice for. In almost all the séances I had
with Home there was plenty of light to see all that occurred, and not only to
enable me to write down notes of what was taking place but to read my notes
without difficulty" (p. 344).
Concerning Home's levitations, Crookes writes elsewhere:
"There are at least a
hundred recorded instances of Mr. Home's rising off the ground, in the presence
of as many separate persons... To reject the recorded evidence on this subject
is to reject all human testimony whatever; for no fact in sacred or profane
history is supported by a stronger array of proofs"(11).
(11) "Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena
called Spiritual during the years 1870-73," Quarterly Journal of Science, Jan.,
1874. Reproduced in the book cited earlier. A highly interesting article by Dr.
E. J. Dingwall, concerning the movements of heavy objects at three sittings with
Home in Florence in 1856, appeared in the British Journal of Psychology, Feb.,
1953, under the title "Psychological Problems arising from a report of
Two more instances of levitation - in their case, of a table - may be cited.
They are more recent than those of Home. The medium was Kathleen Goligher,
seventeen years of age, a girl who worked in a factory in Belfast. The first is
reported, with many others, by Dr. W. J. Crawford, Lecturer in Mechanical
Engineering in Queen's University, Belfast, who carried on a long series of
experiments with this girl for over five years, beginning about 1915.
He states that one evening, in his own house, a table weighing sixteen pounds
was levitated many times, and that, during one of these levitations, while
surface of the table was nearly shoulder-high in the air, I entered the circle
and pressed down with my hands on the top of the table. Although I exerted all
my strength, I could not depress the table to the floor. A friend who is over
six feet in height then leaned over the circle and helped me to press downwards,
when our combined efforts exerted to the limit just caused it to touch the
(12) The Reality of Psychic Phenomena, 2nd.
Ed., John M. Watkins, London, 1918, pp. 63-64.
The second report is by Sir William Barrett, who was given the opportunity by
Dr. Crawford to be present at a sitting with the same girl. He states that he
and Crawford sat outside the circle formed by Kathleen and members of her
family, and that the room was illuminated by a bright gas flame in a lantern
with a large red glass window, which made it possible to see all the sitters
Loud knocks and movements of a trumpet occurred. Then
"the table began to rise
from the floor some 18 inches and remained so suspended and quite level. I was
allowed to go up to the table and saw clearly no one was touching it, a clear
space separating the sitters from the table. I tried to press the table down,
and though I exerted all my strength could not do so; then I climbed up on the
table and sat on it, my feet off the floor, when I was swayed to and fro and
finally tipped off. The table of its own accord now turned upside down, no one
touching it, and I tried to lift it off the ground, but it could not be stirred,
it appeared screwed down to the floor. At my request all the sitters' clasped
hands had been kept raised above their heads, and I could see that no one was
touching the table; - when I desisted from trying to lift the inverted table
from the floor, it righted itself again of its own accord, no one helping it.
Numerous sounds displaying an amused intelligence then came, and after each
individual present had been greeted with some farewell raps the sitting
(13) On the Threshold of the Unseen, E. P.
Dutton and Co., New York, 1918, pp. 47-48.
In connection with these movements of objects without contact in the presence of
a medium, it is appropriate to mention the experiments made in recent years at
the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory and elsewhere, with ordinary
persons. The subject's task was to influence, by merely willing, the fall of
dice over which he had no normal control. Long series of throws were run with
the appropriate precautions, and above chance results were obtained, though not
as decisive as those of the card-guessing experiments for testing extrasensory
perception. Both of these kinds of experiments are of great interest and
importance as providing a to some extent repeatable confirmation of the reality
of the paranormal phenomena concerned, and as showing that possession of the
capacity for manifesting them is not confined to mediums or psychics, even if
others are able to exercise it only in minute degree except perhaps on rare
8. Fire immunity
Another extraordinary physical phenomenon for the reality of which solid
testimony exists from diverse sources is that of the human body's occasional
temporary immunity to fire. Here again, Home gave the probably most convincing
demonstrations of it. The following statement is by Lord Adare (later Earl of
Dunraven) and is from his account of Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D.
Home(14). What he relates occurred at the house of Mrs. Hennings, at Norwood,
early in November, 1868:
"Home then went into a trance. He walked about the room
... he went back to the fire and with his hand stirred the embers into a flame;
then kneeling down, he placed his face right among the burning coals, moving it
about as though bathing it in water. Then, getting up, he held his finger for
some time in the flame of the candle."
(14) Reprinted in Proc. S.P.R., Vol. XXXV,
1926, pp. 133-135.
Home was able to confer temporarily on others the same immunity to fire. Lord
Lindsay (later Earl of Crawford) stated:
"Eight times, I myself have held a
red-hot coal in my hands without injury, when it scorched my face on raising my
hand. Once, I wished to see if they really would burn, and I said so, and
touched a coal with the middle finger of my right hand, and I got a blister as
large as a sixpence; I instantly asked him [Home] to give me the coal, and I
held the part that burnt me, in the middle of my hand, for three or four
minutes, without the least inconvenience"(15).
(15) Report of the London Dialectical
Society's Committee on Spiritualism, London, 1871, p. 208.
Sir William Crookes too testifies to Home's ability to handle red-hot coals while
"Mr. Home again went to the fire, and after stirring the hot coals
about with his hand, took out a red-hot piece nearly as big as an orange, and
putting it on his right hand, covered it over with his left hand so as to almost
completely enclose it, and then blew into the small furnace thus extemporized
until the lump of charcoal was nearly white-hot, and then drew my attention to
the lambent flame ... licking round his fingers ... "(16)
(16) "Notes of Séances with D. D. Home,"
Proc. S.P.R., Vol. V1, 1889-90 p. 103.
Reports have been numerous from various parts of the world of religious rites
during which certain of the participants walk over beds of red-hot coals with
impunity. Two recent ones may be cited briefly. One of them is by Mr. Martin
Ebon, Administrative Secretary of the Parapsychology Foundation, who observed
the fire-walking rite in the village of Saint Helen in Greece on May 21, 1956,
and reports what he saw in the Summer 1956 issue of the magazine, Tomorrow (pp.
71-2). He describes the building of the fire, of wood to which charcoal was
later added, which burned for forty-five minutes before the actual dancing
across the embers began. He names two men and three women who for some twenty
minutes then danced barefoot across the embers, crossing them respectively
eleven times, six, fifteen, six and five times, two of the dancers carrying ikons. He states that their feet were then examined by an officer of the Greek
Army Medical Corps and by an American anthropologist and found "entirely normal,
apparently completely unaffected by exposure to the intense heat." He adds that
he "examined the embers immediately upon cessation of the dance, and found them
still so hot as to be hardly touchable."
In the same issue of Tomorrow, Admiral Angelo Tanagras (ret.) of the Greek Navy
describes a similar rite which he witnessed on May 21, 1940 at another Greek
"By and by the fire died down leaving red hot coals ten
inches deep over an area of about twenty-five square feet. The three original Anastenares, aroused again by the music, danced into the middle of the circle
led by Panayo Christi. Without a moment's hesitation, still holding the icon,
Panayo danced barefoot into the fire, crossed it, recrossed it and then went
over it a third time. Iphigenia followed her example, but with her stockings on.
She danced across the hot coals, and as if this were not enough, she stooped and
plunged her bare hands into the fiery embers and strewed them about. Venetia
Klokou, who had kept her shoes on, didn't tread on the fire but contented
herself with plunging her hands several times into the burning coals.... There
was not the least trace of scorching or burn" on Panayo's feet, nor on the hands
of lphigenia or Venetia (pp. 77-78).
9. Materialization, dematerialization, ectoplasm
Perhaps the strangest of all reported paranormal physical phenomena is that of
the materialization, apparently in part or wholly out of nothing, of portions of
human bodies - hands, for example, which move, grasp, carry things, etc.; or of
entire bodies which act, speak, and breathe like living beings; and after a
while dematerialize, suddenly or slowly. The materializations of "Katie King,"
repeatedly observed by Sir William Crookes as well as by others, and measured,
auscultated, tested, and photographed by him - Florence Cook being the medium -
are perhaps the most famous as well as among the most impressive of the many
materializations that have been reported.
The materialization, in whole or in part, of human bodies and of their clothing
and accoutrements, appears to depend on and to consist at least in part of a
mysterious substance that emanates from the medium's body, and to which the name
of "ectoplasm" has therefore been given. It is apparently able to exert or to
conduct force. It is sometimes vaporous, sometimes filmy like a veil, sometimes
gelatinous, sometimes solid like thick dough.
The latter was its consistency on the one occasion when I personally had an
opportunity to see in good red light, to touch, and to photograph a substance
emanating from the mouth of an entranced medium, which, whether or not it was
"ectoplasm," did not behave, feel, or look as any other substance known to me
could, I think, have done under the conditions that existed. It was coldish -
its temperature being comparable to that of steel. This gave the impression of
being moist, but it was dry and slightly rough like dough whose surface has
Many photographs of "ectoplasm" have been published, but, in connection with
them and with photographs or other purported objective records of
materializations, of levitations or of other paranormal physical phenomena, the
following words of Professor Charles Richet always have to be kept in mind:
"Photographs, impressions on blackened paper, on clay, on plaster, or on
paraffin wax have no value in themselves: everything depends on the conditions.
There are photographs so skillfully counterfeited that I should make no
conclusions at all on any such shown to me unless the circumstances under which
they were produced were given with such precise detail as to make all trickery
(17) Thirty Years of Psychical Research,
Collins & Sons, London, 1923, p. 460.
Charles Richet, Professor of Physiology at the University of Paris and Nobel
prizeman for 1913 in physiology and medicine, had, as indicated by the title of
the book where the words just cited appear, some thirty years of experience in
psychical research. In the first part of the third chapter of Book III of that
work, he discusses in detail the possibilities of fraud in purported
materializations, and the precautions necessary to preclude it; and he concludes
that, in the case of the best of the available reports of the phenomenon - a
number of which he mentions - neither fraud nor illusion is a possible
"When I recall the precautions that all of us have taken, not once,
but twenty, a hundred, or even a thousand times, it is inconceivable that we
should have been deceived on all these occasions" (p. 467).
Out of the many descriptions on record of ectoplasm and of material forms it
assumed, I shall quote only an account Richet gives of some of the occurrences
which he personally observed under especially favorable conditions. He writes:
"Sometimes these ectoplasms can be seen in process of organization; I have seen
an almost rectilinear prolongation emerge from Eusapia's body, its termination
acting like a living hand. Similarly in the formation of Bien Boa, at first the
limbs appeared thin and stiff, like narrow stalks; little by little they
thickened, taking the form of more or less solid limbs similar to normal limbs.
I have also, like Geley, Schrenck-Notzing, and Mme. Bisson, been able to see the
first lineaments of materializations as they were formed. A kind of liquid or
pasty jelly emerges from her mouth or the breast of Marthe which organizes
itself by degrees, acquiring the shape of a face or a limb. Under very good
conditions of visibility, I have seen this paste spread on my knee, and slowly
take form so as to show the rudiment of the radius, the cubitus, or metacarpal
bone whose increasing pressure I could feel on my knee... At the Villa Carmen I
saw a fully organized form rise from the floor. At first it was only a white,
opaque spot like a handkerchief lying on the ground before the curtain, then
this handkerchief quickly assumed the form of a human head level with the floor,
and a few moments later it rose up in a straight line and became a small man ...
who took two or three halting steps in front of the curtain and then sank to the
floor and disappeared as if through a trap door. But there was no trap
(18) Op. cit. pp. 469-70. Richet adds a
footnote here and another on p. 505, in which he takes cognizance of allegations
that he had been the victim of fraud at the Villa Carmen, and maintains that
trickery would not account for what he saw. He traces those allegations to the
spite of a servant at the Villa, who had been dismissed for theft, and to the
exploitation of the lies he then told by a local sensation-seeking newspaper.
Cf. R. Tocquet's Tout l'Occultisme Devoile, Amiot Dumont, Paris, 1952, pp.
233-40 and 312.
In connection with reports of materializations, such as those just cited, it
should be mentioned that at least one documented report exists of the temporary
dematerialization of part of the body of a living person. At a séance held in Helsingfors, December 11, 1893, at the house of Professor Max Seiling (of the
Polytechnic School in Helsingfors) and attended by fifteen persons, the medium,
Mme. d'Esperance, was seated in a chair in front of the cabinet. The lower part
of her body, from the waist down, is reported to have then dematerialized. Mme.
d'Esperance - who remained conscious during her séances - became aware of the
dematerialization when she lowered her hands to rest them on her lap, but found
the lap missing. She then asked several of the persons present to come and
verify by manual exploration of the whole seat of the chair what those nearest
her could clearly see, to wit, that only the empty folds of her gown remained
there, whereas the upper part of her body was still in the chair in the same
position as before. After a while, the gown below the waist was seen to fill
out, as the absent part of the body rematerialized. Detailed statements by those
persons were obtained by Mr. M. A. Aksakof, who published them in the book Un Cas de Dematerialisation Partielle du Corps d'un Medium(19).
(19) Librairie de l'Art Independant, Paris,
1896. Translated from the French by Tracy Gould under the title, A Case of
Partial Dematerialization of the Body of a Medium, Banner of Light Publishing
Co., Boston, 1998.
10. Are the physical phenomena described important?
We have now before us a sample of some of the best testimony on record as to the
occurrence of physical phenomena of the chief ostensibly paranormal kinds. A
number of questions about them naturally arise: Are they of any importance? Are
they due to the agency of discarnate spirits? and, of course: Were the phenomena
reported genuinely paranormal? Let us consider them in turn.
As regards the importance of the phenomena, what must be said is that - assuming
them to have been genuine - their scientific implications are momentous
notwithstanding that the phenomena in themselves, or some of them, are trivial.
For the mere occurrence of such phenomena shows that there are limits to the
validity of the "basic limiting principles" mentioned earlier, within which all
contemporary scientific and lay thinking and practical activity are confined. In
other words, those phenomena show that there are forces or dimensions of Nature,
as yet unknown and unexplored, to which the paranormal physical phenomena are
This type of situation has presented itself many times in the history of
science. It has led, not to suppositions of "supernatural" interferences with
the course of Nature, but to the discovery and exploration of natural agencies
until then unsuspected. Examples of such agencies would be electricity,
magnetism, and more recently atomic radiation. There is no reason why scientific
attention to the paranormal phenomena in view should not eventually have a
similar result. If so, they will then be termed normal, no longer paranormal;
just as photography through solid bodies, which before the discovery of X-rays
would have ranked as paranormal, is now normal routine.
11. Are the phenomena due to the agency of invisible spirits?
Paranormal physical phenomena - again assuming them genuinely to occur - provide
a temptation practically irresistible to uncritical, emotional, and imaginative
minds to ascribe them to the agency of invisible "spirits," whether divine or
devilish, human or subhuman. Thus, for example, the levitations recorded of
saints are ascribed to the power of Almighty God, notwithstanding that the power
to levitate a human body does not have to be almighty, but only mighty enough to
lift some 150 pounds more or less!
Again, poltergeist phenomena - as the very word indicates - are ascribed to the
action of mischievous spirits; and various of the other phenomena mentioned are
generally ascribed by persons who accept them to the agency of spirits of the
dead; or, by others, to the agency of the Devil.
But evidently these suppositions would be relevant only to a question as to who
causes the phenomena, not as to how they are caused; whereas only an account of
how they are caused would constitute an explanation of them in the scientific
sense of the word "explanation." This fact somehow eludes many of the persons
who have an interest in paranormal phenomena and who also believe that the
spirit of man survives the death of his body. They strangely assume that their
departed friend John Doe, who like the rest of us was until he died able to move
physical objects only by using the muscles of his body, suddenly becomes capable
of doing it without muscles and simply by an act of will, merely because his
body has died!
The hypothesis of agency by discarnate spirits has any relevance at all in
connection with paranormal physical phenomena only when these do not merely
occur but in addition manifest intelligence and purpose - as, for example, when
questions asked are intelligently answered by means of paranormal raps according
to a code. Then, but only then, does the question arise as to whether the
intelligence which answers is a discarnate mind, human or other, or, on the
contrary, is a human mind still incarnate - and more particularly, perhaps a
temporarily dissociated part of the mind of the entranced medium.
If the information so communicated is veridical, but was not obtainable in any
normal manner by the medium, then the powers which make it possible for the
medium to communicate it are no less mysterious, i.e., no less paranormal, if
one ascribes them to a discarnate mind that imparts the information paranormally
to the medium, or in some paranormal way takes direct control of the medium's
body, than if one ascribes appropriate powers of extrasensory perception to the
entranced or awake medium's still incarnate mind. And the latter ascription has
the advantage that the existence of the medium is known; whereas that of
discarnate minds is in such cases only postulated. The question whether there is
other and better evidence of the existence and activity of discarnate minds than
the paranormal physical phenomena provide need not be gone into here; but only
the fact pointed out that the paranormal physical phenomena, however striking
and in themselves of revolutionary scientific importance, do not constitute
particularly strong evidence of survival of the human mind after death(20).
(20) Cf. in this connection the acute and
extensively documented Traité de Parapsychologie, by René Sudre, Payot, Paris,
No doubt, if one is fortunate enough to witness a materialization where the
materialized form duplicates the appearance of a departed friend or relative,
speaks as the latter did, and utters information of an intimate nature which few
if any but the deceased and oneself possessed, then the temptation may well be
psychologically irresistible to conclude that the deceased himself is with us
again, in temporarily materialized form.
But with regard to such materialized "ghosts" as with the visible but usually
intangible apparitions popularly called ghosts - neither of which present
themselves naked but always clothed - the remark is relevant that "if ghosts
have clothes, then clothes have ghosts." That is, if a materialized face or hand
is taken to be evidence that the mind, personality, or spirit which animated it
before death survives after death, then must one not if one is to be consistent
take a materialized familiar gown or coat or headdress to be evidence that these
too have survived in a "spirit" world (even though the originals may be still
hanging in a closet at home, reverently preserved in moth balls)? On the other
hand, if one assumes that the materialized clothing is a materialization only of
a memory image in one's mind, of the deceased's clothing, then does not
consistency require one to assume that the materialized face is likewise a
materialization only of one's memory image of the deceased's face?
These questions are raised here, not in order to insinuate one rather than the
other of those two hypotheses as to what the materialization really is of, but
in order to underline the necessity of formulating explicitly the criteria, if
any, on the basis of which one would propose to rule out one of the two
hypotheses and to accept the other.
12. Were the phenomena reported genuinely paranormal?
We come finally to the question, which of course is logically prior to all the
others, as to whether the phenomena really occurred as reported; or perhaps, if
we were present ourselves, really occurred as we thought we actually saw them
occur. Might not the appearance of paranormality be explained as due to
malobservation, or to misinterpretation of what was actually observed, or to
fraud whether deliberate or unconscious on the medium's part?
No pat answer can be given. In order to judge as to these possibilities in
concrete cases, it is necessary to be familiar, not only with the details of the
circumstances - seldom adequately reported - and, not only with the psychology
of waking hallucinations and of illusions of perception, but also with some of
the devices by which conjurers induce illusions of perception; and also with the
tricks of fraudulent mediums which, because performed under conditions usually
very different from those of stage performances, are themselves usually
Among other books useful to study in this connection may be mentioned D. P.
Abbott's Behind the Scenes with the Mediums; H. Carrington's The Physical
Phenomena of Spiritualism, Fraudulent and Genuine; R. Tocquet's Tout
l'Occultisme Devoile: J. J. Proskaner's The Dead do not Talk; J. Dunninger's
to Make a Ghost Walk, and Inside the Medium's Cabinet; J. Rinn's Sixty Years of
Psychical Research. Some of these, incidentally, provide unconscious testimony
as to the gullibility in reverse of some of the "debunkers" of paranormal
occurrences, and of some stage magicians who, like Houdini on the subject of
hypnosis, naïvely believe that no phenomenon of which they can give a convincing
fraudulent imitation under circumstances of their own choosing can possibly ever
In order to complete our discussion of paranormal physical phenomena, it would
be necessary to present samples of the criticisms of some of the evidence cited
which have been made by various persons. Also, to present the replies offered by
persons who thought that the criticisms did not successfully invalidate the
reports. This, however, would make a long and involved story which it is not
possible to introduce here. I can only say that I have taken some pains to
familiarize myself with those criticisms and objections, and that, even when
they had some ground, they did not, as it seems to me, come anywhere near
invalidating most of the positive evidence, of which I have cited some samples.
One important lesson, which scrutiny of what has been urged against the validity
of the testimony cited has taught me, is that allegations of detection of fraud,
or of malobservation, or of misinterpretation of what was observed, or of
hypnotically induced hallucinations, have to be scrutinized as closely and as
critically as must be the testimony for the reality of the phenomena. For there
is likely to be just as much wishful thinking, prejudice, emotion, snap
judgment, naiveté, and intellectual dishonesty on the side of orthodoxy, of skepticism, and of conservatism, as on the side of hunger for and of belief in
the marvelous. The emotional motivation for irresponsible disbelief is, in fact,
probably even stronger - especially in scientifically educated persons, whose
pride of knowledge is at stake - than is in other persons the motivation for
irresponsible belief. In these matters, nothing is so rare as genuine
objectivity of judgment - judgment determined neither by the will to believe nor
by the will to disbelieve, but only by the will to get at the truth irrespective
of whether it turns out to be comfortably familiar or uncomfortably novel,
consoling or distressing, orthodox or unorthodox.
As a single example of the sort of irresponsibility on the skeptical side to
which I allude, I may mention the disparaging but wholly gratuitous allegation
that the suicide of Dr. W. J. Crawford (some of whose observations I cited)
which occurred on July 30, 1920 following collapse due to overwork, was
motivated by disappointment in some way with his investigations of the phenomena
of Kathleen Goligher. This allegation is irresponsible because evidence
disproving it is easily available, in the form of published extracts from a
letter written by Crawford four days before his death, in which he tells his
friend, David Gow, to whom it was addressed:
"I have been struck down mentally.
I was perfectly well up to a few weeks ago. My psychic work was all done before
the collapse, and is the most perfect work I have done in my life. Everything
connected with it is absolutely correct, and will bear every scrutiny. It was
done when my brain was working perfectly, and it could not be responsible for
what has occurred. It is not the psychic work. I enjoyed it too well. I am
thankful to say that the work will stand. It is too thoroughly done for any
material loopholes to be left"(21).
(21) See Appendix to E. E. Fournier d'Albe's The Goligher Circle, May to August 1921, John M. Watkins, London, 1922, p. 70;
and the Introduction by David Gow, to Crawford's The Psychic Structures at the Goligher Circle, Watkins, London, 1921. Also, Dr. Dingwall's review of Fournier
d'Albe's book above, in the S.P.R. Journal, Vol. XXl, 1923-4, pp. 19-24.
The phenomena of which we have considered reports are indeed hard to believe - as
hard for me as for anyone else. But why? Ultimately, only because they are very
rare and we do not happen to have observed them ourselves. Belief is essentially
a matter of habit: levitation is not in itself any more or less paradoxical than
gravitation. But the latter is very familiar to all of us; the former very rare.
In the light of all this, I can do no better than to bring these remarks to a
close by two quotations. One is from Sir William Crookes who in 1889 wrote:
"Most assuredly, so far as my knowledge of science goes, there is absolutely no
reason a priori to deny the possibility of such phenomena as I have described.
Those who assume ... that we are now acquainted with all, or nearly all, or
even with any assignable proportion, of the forces at work in the universe, show
a limitation of conception which ought to be impossible in an age when the
widening of the circle of our definite knowledge does but reveal the
proportionately widening circle of our blank, absolute, indubitable
(22) "Notes of Séances with D. D. Home,"
Proc. S.P.R., Vol. VI, 1889-90, p. 100.
It is appropriate to note that the above remarks were written at a time when the
transmutation of elements was still thought to be only a dream of medieval
alchemists; and radio, radar, or television did not yet exist.
To those words of Crookes, let us add a statement to the same general effect by
Professor C. A. Mace, Past President of the Psychology Section of the British
"It is a paradox ... that the defenses we erect within ourselves against
prejudice and superstition themselves tend so to encrust and petrify the mind
that it becomes increasingly resistant to novel truths. No one has had better
reason to be conscious of this paradox than the student of psychical research in
his efforts to invoke co-operation from orthodox scientists in relevant and
allied fields of investigation"(23).
(23) Supernormal Faculty and the Structure of the
Mind. The Fifth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture, Proc. S.P.R., Vol. XLIV,
1937, p. 279.