Rosalind Heywood

Member of Council, Society for Psychical Research. Was interested in documenting different attitudes towards ESP research. Koestler dedicated his book "The Roots of Coincidence" to Heywood, 'catalyst-in-chief'. Her books included "ESP: A Personal Memoir", "The Sixth Sense" (London, 1959), "Beyond the Reach of Sense" (E. P. Dutton, 1974) and "The Infinite Hive" (Pan, 1966). In the latter book she documented her own psychic experiences.

Mediumship - Mrs Piper

 - Rosalind Heywood -

         THE EARLY researchers also sought for evidence of survival in the utterances of mediums. The term medium, as Myers said, is a question-begging and barbarous one, since it assumes that the information which mediums acquire does not come from this world even by ESP, but is given them by the dead. Unfortunately, too, the term is used, not only for mental mediumship - trance utterance, automatic writing and so on - but for physical mediumship as well. Physical mediumship is the alleged power of producing physical phenomena by means of emanations from the human body or by other unknown methods. There is little evidence in its favour, but not enough to include it in a short study of the trail leading to established facts. If possible it has been - and is - even more dishonestly faked than mental mediumship and one of the tasks which fell to the lot of the SPR was to expose the activities of fake mediums who make a good living by representing lengths of butter muslin to sorrowing widows as their departed husbands, and other similar frauds. One of their activities is to produce what are known as apports, or small objects which they claim to bring from afar by psychic means. On one occasion the Hon. Everard Feilding, who was at the time research officer for the SPR, arranged a sitting with a reputed physical medium, of whom he had his doubts. She was unwise enough to leave him alone in her room beforehand and he took the opportunity to have a look behind the curtains. Attached to these he found a number of prawns, and round their necks he tied bows of pink ribbon with which he had had the foresight to come provided. Thus adorned the prawns duly appeared at his sitting, purporting to have been brought from the sea by psychic means.

Throughout the ages mediumship had been looked upon as a supernatural power and often too as witchcraft. It was something outside nature. The first generation of SPR workers put it on the map to be studied as a natural phenomenon. Myers, with his usual insight, realized that it was linked with dreams, genius, hypnosis and automatisms, and that all these phenomena were signs of the existence of a subconscious self with certain powers more extended than those of surface consciousness. It was less difficult for him and his co-workers than it is for us to envisage the possibility that mediumship was also a means of communicating with the dead, not only because of the widespread assumption in their day that the spirit of man was an entity separable from his body, but because they were inclined to look upon telepathy as a matter of comparatively straightforward transmission of conscious thought from 'mind to mind'. It thus seemed to them not unreasonable to suppose that the discarnate, if they existed, could transmit a message by telepathy to a person specially endowed to receive it, who could then pass it on to others.

As studies progressed, however, particularly after the death of Myers, it became apparent that mediumship, whatever its nature, was infinitely more complex than this. Take the problem of the form in which communication through trance mediums purports to come. Trance is not, as many people think, an uncanny affair. As a rule the medium merely sits down in a chair, gives some deep sighs and a groan or two and falls asleep, to awaken a few minutes later apparently as another person. This is the Spiritualists' Control, whom they believe to be a discarnate spirit, able temporarily to manipulate the medium's body. His functions, they claim, are to protect the medium from invasion by the many spirits who wish to communicate with the sitter or with others still alive. Occasionally, with the Control's permission, one of these communicators purports to take over from him for a time.

Investigation began to concentrate upon this curious phenomenon and it began to look as if the whole dramatic form of Control and communicator might in fact be playacting on the part of the medium's subconscious. Even so, as Mrs Sidgwick pointed out, it might still be a framework within which genuine information could be obtained. Mediums, of course, are of all types and grades, from the scarcely literate to a very few highly educated sensitives who would not care for the label medium and prefer to keep their gift a secret. The great medium is more rare than the great artist and we are lucky indeed if half a dozen crop up in a century. There have been no more than three available for lengthy study by the SPR since it was founded in 1882.

The finest medium studied by the early workers was an American, Mrs Piper, who was under expert observation from 1886 until 1911. She was constantly watched for fraud and even at times shadowed by detectives, but during that whole period she was never found to make the slightest conscious attempt to cheat. On the contrary, she gave every sign of being a person of integrity. Her gift of mediumship was discovered almost by chance. Discouraged by the failure of normal treatment to clear up the effects of an accident, she at last decided to consult a 'psychic healer'. At her second visit to him she herself went into a trance, and soon afterwards developed the power to do this at will. Her head would fall on to a cushion, her surface personality fade out, and a new personality would speak or write matter of which it was clear she had no knowledge when she awoke. Several of these new personalities, or Controls, turned up, but quite soon one of them ousted all the others. He claimed to have been a French doctor called Phinuit - this was a variant of the name of the healer's own Control - and to transmit messages from a number of communicators. Whatever the truth of this, when he was ostensibly in control of the entranced Mrs Piper she would often display remarkable ESP.

William James and Richard Hodgson, who were active members of the American SPR, came to hear of Mrs Piper at a time when they were both very sceptical of mediums in general and suspected them all of tricks. But Mrs Piper did not indulge in tricks, and finally James and Hodgson were so impressed by her constant display of apparent ESP that they advised the SPR to invite her to England, where she could be closely studied in conditions which ensured her ignorance of the people who sat with her. She came in 1889 and worked for some months with the SPR under the supervision of a committee consisting of Oliver Lodge, Myers and Walter Leaf, a member of its Council who, like James and Hodgson, was inclined to lean backwards on the side of scepticism(1).

(1) Proceedings SPR, Vol. VI, pp. 436-659.

In those days Lodge, who held the Chair of Physics at Liverpool University, was also extremely sceptical, and he gave Mrs Piper no chance to acquire information about those whom she would meet on the tests. He was awaiting her on the landing stage and he took her directly to his own house, where his precautions were worthy of the security police. All the servants were new, photographs and papers were locked up, Mrs Piper's luggage was searched, and sitters were introduced under assumed names. But she continued to produce information out of the blue. How and whence did she get it? Lodge devised a test which he hoped might provide a clue. He wrote to an Uncle Robert for some object belonging to the uncle's twin, Jerry, who had died twenty years before. Robert sent him a gold watch which he handed to Mrs Piper while she was in trance. Phinuit said right away that it had belonged to an uncle, whose name with some difficulty he gave as Jerry. This name could have been got telepathically from Lodge, but when 'Jerry' was asked about his boyhood he recalled a number of incidents - killing a cat in a place called Smith's Field, owning a long skin like a snake skin, and being nearly drowned in a creek - of which Lodge knew nothing. On inquiry his Uncle Robert remembered the snake skin but denied killing the cat. But a third uncle, Frank, was found to remember both the cat and playing in Smith's Field. He also gave details of the creek incident. So Mrs Piper had made three hits on somewhat unusual incidents and had given the name, Smith's Field, in conditions in which it was considered impossible that she could have sent sleuths to nose them out. Even had she done so the sleuths would have failed, for as a test Lodge himself sent an inquirer to his uncle's boyhood home to try and extract the information given by Mrs Piper from old men in the village. He had no success(2).

(2) It has been suggested that the two living uncles merely imagined that they remembered the three incidents. If so, this argument must be applied to numbers of similar hits made by Mrs Piper during the next thirty years and many people must have done a great deal of apt imagining.

After careful study the SPR committee agreed that Mrs Piper was honest and her trance genuine. They also agreed that she had a remarkable gift of ESP. But they did not believe Phinuit's clam to be a discarnate personality. He could give no satisfactory account of his life on earth and he knew no French, and, although at times he would diagnose with brilliance, his knowledge of medicine was amateurish. Also he had a habit, unworthy of the profession he claimed, of 'fishing' for information and padding with airy nothings when Mrs Piper's ESP was not at its best. This is painfully true of most Controls.

Three years later, in 1892, Mrs Piper developed a new Control who largely ousted Phinuit. He purported to be a young friend of Hodgson's, George Pelham (a pseudonym for Pellew) who had died very suddenly in New York. But there were times when the new Control - he was called G.P. - and Phinuit together performed a tour de force: Phinuit would talk on one subject while G.P. wrote simultaneously on another. Although Mrs Piper did not know it, she had once met George Pelham when living. He had had one sitting with her under an assumed name, and it is possible that she may then have telepathically discovered his right name, tapped his store of memories and studied his personal characteristics without consciously knowing that she had done so.

The records of sittings in which G.P. took part are extremely long and their total effect is far more life-like than isolated summarized items. The question is, how could an ordinary woman have collected enough information to keep up what appears to have been a fantastic impersonation for years and remain in ignorance that she had done so? G.P., for instance, picked out 30 of George Pelham's personal friends from 150 strangers and made not one mistake. He also spoke to them of memories in common and reacted towards them as the living George Pelham would have done. If G.P. were not George Pelham, asked Hodgson, now could he do this? In the end G.P.'s characterization of George Pelham, added to an incommunicable sense of presence, broke down Hodgson's extreme scepticism.

'I cannot profess', he wrote, 'to have any doubt but that the chief communicators to whom I have referred ... are veritably the personalities that they claim to be, that they have survived the change we call death, and that they have directly communicated with us whom we call living through Mrs Piper's entranced organism.'

William James and Mrs Sidgwick, although they came to accept survival, inclined to the view that Mrs Piper's actual Controls were her own subconscious creations.

It often happens in psychical research that a run of positive evidence will suddenly be brought up short by an incident indicating that the problem is more subtle than it seems. A pendant to Hodgson's conversion did just this. He died in 1906 and at times thereafter purported to control Mrs Piper. In 1909 a sitter, Dr Hall, invented a dead niece for himself, whom he called Bessie Beals, and asked the communicating 'Hodgson' to produce her. This was duly done, and by her third appearance she was connecting specific memories with Dr Hall. When 'Hodgson' was finally laughed at for producing a fictitious niece, he wriggled badly and said she had been related to another sitter. Finally he made the implausible excuse that he had been mistaken about the name and that the other sitter's friend was Jessie Beals. The trance consciousness is a great myth maker and to sift fact from fantasy in its productions is a tough job. It often seems indeed as if the medium were wandering in a dream world.

Ultimately G.P. was replaced as Mrs Piper's main control by a band of purported VIPs who unfortunately talked a lot of nonsense. One of them, for instance, who claimed to be George Eliot, said she had met Adam Bede. William James came to the conclusion that mediumship was unlikely to be the simple matter of either/or which we are inclined to demand. There may be, he said, outside 'wills to communicate' as well as the medium's own 'will to personate', and they may help each other out. Real flashes from an outside 'will' may be mixed up with the rubbish of trance talk, and it may be the outside 'will' which activates the medium's own 'will to personate'.

Of Mrs Piper's mediumship it can be said that it was of great value to research in that, under strict supervision, she was the first to produce communications from purported spirits which were not only of a straightforward mental type, unmixed with suspect physical phenomena, but were in themselves worthy of serious consideration. Their origin remained, however, a matter of opinion, because the limits of telepathy were - and are - not known. Mrs Piper also made another valuable contribution to case material by taking part in, a new phenomenon which first occurred after Myer's death. In this appeared what was claimed to be a new type of evidence for survival, which depended, not on super-normal knowledge by medium or automatist, but on evidence of design in the actual communications. It was the next highlight in the explorations of the SPR, and it was one of the greatest case histories in the whole progress of psychical research.


"The Sixth Sense" by Rosalind Heywood (1959, Chatto and Windus Ltd).


More articles by Rosalind Heywood

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