James Hyslop

James Hyslop

Professor of Logic and Ethics from 1889-1902 at Columbia University, New York. One of the most distinguished American psychical researchers, a prolific writer and the greatest American propagandist of survival. When Richard Hodgson died in 1905 Hyslop took his place as chief investigator of Mrs. Piper and devoted the following year to the organisation of a new American SPR. "I regard the existence of discarnate spirits as scientifically proved", said Hyslop in "Life After Death" (1918).

History of the Piper Case

1. Exclusion of Fraud | 2. Psychological Incidents of the Case

 - James Hyslop -

          I PROPOSE in this chapter to give a brief history of this singular case of experiment, including a few words on Mrs. Piper's personal history. The chief interest and importance of the case consists in the care with which fraud was excluded from a possible interpretation of its phenomena and the perfection and magnitude of the records made in the experiments. It is these two facts which justify the consideration of it by itself.

1. Exclusion of Fraud

Mrs. Piper's connection with trance phenomena began in 1884. Her "husband's father and mother had been impressed by an experiment with a medium in that year and persuaded Mrs. Piper to try consultation with a medium who gave medical advice. She was suffering at this time with a tumor." The result was that she soon developed a trance state herself and began sittings with her own friends. No important record of these sittings is accessible. Casual experiments of this sort were kept up until 1885 when Prof. James, of Harvard University, made his acquaintance with the case. His account will be stated in his own language:

"I made Mrs. Piper's acquaintance in the autumn of 1885. My wife's mother, Mrs. Gibbens, had been told of her by a friend, during the previous summer, and never having seen a medium before, had paid her a visit out of curiosity. She returned with the statement that Mrs. Piper had given her a long string of names of members of the family, mostly Christian names, together with facts about the persons mentioned and their relations to each other, the knowledge of which on her part was incomprehensible without supernormal powers. My sister-in-law went the next day, with still better results, as she related them. Amongst other things, the medium had accurately described the circumstances of a letter which she held against her forehead, after Miss G. had given it to her. The letter was in Italian, and its writer was known to but two persons in this country.

"I remember playing the esprit fort on that occasion before my feminine relatives, and seeking to explain by simple considerations the marvellous character of the facts which they brought back. This did not, however, prevent me from going myself a few days later, in company with my wife, to get a direct personal impression. The names of none of us up to this meeting had been announced to Mrs. Piper, and Mrs. J. and I were, of course, careful to make no reference to our relatives who had preceded. The medium, however, when entranced, repeated most of the names of 'spirits' whom she had announced on the two former occasions and added others. The names came with difficulty, and were only gradually made perfect. My wife's father's name of Gibbens was announced first as Niblin, then as Giblin. A child Herman (whom we had lost the previous year) had his name spelt out as Herrin. I think that in no case were both Christian and surnames given on this visit. But the facts predicated of the persons named made it in many instances impossible not to recognise the particular individuals talked about. We took particular pains on this occasion to give the Phinuit control no help over his difficulties and to ask no leading questions. In the light of subsequent experience I believe this not to be the best policy. For it often happens, if you give this trance-personage a name or some small fact for the lack of which he is brought to a standstill, that he will then start off with a copious flow of additional talk, containing in itself an abundance of 'tests.'

"My impression after this first visit was, that Mrs. Piper was either possessed of supernormal powers, or knew the members of my wife's family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances as to produce the startling impression which she did. My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance with her has led me absolutely to reject the latter explanation, and to believe that she has supernormal powers."

Prof. James visited Mrs. Piper a number of times that winter and also sent strangers to her unannounced beforehand, in all of which about twenty-five reported. One half of these reported nothing worth mentioning. The remainder were surprised, according to the statement of Prof. James, at the communications they received. This Prof. James reported in the American Proceedings for 1886. He concluded it with the statement:

"I am persuaded of the medium's honesty, and of the genuineness of her trance; and although at first disposed to think that the 'hits' she made were either lucky coincidences, or the result of knowledge on her part of who the sitter was and of his or her family affairs, I now believe her to be in possession of a power as yet unexplained."

Some attempts were made by Prof. James to hypnotise Mrs. Piper, with partial success only until the fifth trial. But this experiment did not result in throwing any light upon the trance state, as the facts seemed to show that the hypnotic and trance states were different from each other.

It was two years later before any further important experiments were undertaken, and these were by Dr. Richard Hodgson, who had been appointed Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research. He came from Cambridge University in England, where he had been a lecturer in its courses before being sent to India to investigate the doings of Madame Blavatsky on whom he published an elaborate report convicting her of fraud. His story affecting Mrs. Piper may be told in his own language:

"My own knowledge of Mrs. Piper," says Dr. Hodgson, "began in May, 1887, about a fortnight after my arrival in Boston, and my first appointment for a sitting was made by Professor William James. Professor James had visited her about a dozen times during the previous year and half, and had sent a large number of persons to her, making appointments himself 'for most of these people, whose names were in no instance announced to the medium.' As a result of his inquiries he became fully convinced that Mrs. Piper had supernormal powers.

"I had several sittings myself with Mrs. Piper, at which much intimate knowledge, some of it personal, was shown of deceased friends or relatives of mine; and I made appointments for sittings for at least fifty persons whom I believed to be strangers to Mrs. Piper, taking the utmost precautions to prevent her obtaining any information beforehand as to who the sitters were to be. The general result was the same as in my own case. Most of these persons were told facts through the trance-utterance which they felt sure could not have become known to Mrs. Piper by ordinary means. For several weeks, moreover, at the suggestion of one of the members, detectives were employed for the purpose of ascertaining whether there were any indications that Mrs. Piper or her husband, or other persons connected with her, tried to ascertain facts about possible sitters by the help of confederates, or other ordinary methods of inquiry, but not the smallest indication whatever of any such procedure was discovered. My own conclusion was that after allowing the widest possible margin for information obtainable under the circumstances by ordinary means, for chance coincidence and remarkable guessing, aided by clues given consciously and unconsciously by the sitters, and helped out by supposed hyperaesthesia on the part of Mrs. Piper, there remained a large residuum of knowledge displayed in her trance state, which could not be accounted for except on the hypothesis that she had some supernormal power; and this conviction has been strengthened by later investigations."

The common knowledge that fraud of some kind could simulate the acquisition of supernormal information was the justification as well as the instigation of this careful experimentation to exclude its possibility, and it seems that the judgment was fairly uniform that fraud of no kind could explain the best part of the results. The detective and confederate methods of many "spiritualistic" mediums can account for many a striking fact, but in addition to the exclusion of their possibility in this case was the fact that no evidence could be found that any attempt to get information in this or similar ways had been made. But the effort to satisfy themselves that some resource for fraud was not practiced was not abated by these experiments. Mrs. Piper was taken to England for experiment by the group of investigators there, which comprised such men as Prof. Henry Sidgwick, Cambridge University; Prof., now Sir Oliver Lodge; Prof. Barrett; Mr. F. W. H. Myers; Dr. Walter Leaf; and a few others. The design was to introduce Mrs. Piper to surroundings about which she knew nothing personally prior to this visit. It served as an obstacle to all clandestine knowledge. Mrs. Piper was taken to England in November 1889. Mr. F. W. H. Myers says of the precautions taken against fraud:

"Professor Lodge met her on the Liverpool landing-stage, November 19th, and conducted her to a hotel, where I joined her on November 20th, and escorted her and her children to Cambridge. She stayed first in my house; and I am convinced that she brought with her a very slender knowledge of English affairs or English people. The servant who attended on her and on her two young children was chosen by myself, and was a young woman from a country village whom I had full reason to believe to be trustworthy and also quite ignorant of my own or my friends' affairs. For the most part I had myself not determined upon the persons whom I would invite to sit with her. I chose these sitters in great measure by chance; several of them were not resident in Cambridge; and (except in one or two cases where anonymity would have been hard to preserve) I brought them to her under false names, - sometimes introducing them only when the trance had already begun."

Sir Oliver Lodge reports still further measures against the suspicion of fraud by Mrs. Piper. It seems that every resource was anticipated and provided against. I give his statements of what was done to protect the results of experiment against ordinary suspicions.

"Mrs. Piper's correspondence was small, something like three letters a week, even when the children were away from her. The outsides of her letters nearly always passed through my hands, and often the insides, too, by her permission.

"The servants were all, as it happened, new, having been obtained by my wife through ordinary local inquiries and registry offices, just about the time of Mrs. Piper's visit. Consequently they were entirely ignorant of family connections, and could have told nothing, however largely they had been paid.

"The ingenious suggestion has been made that they were her spies. Knowing the facts, I will content myself with asserting that they had absolutely no connection with her of any sort.

"The photograph albums and family Bibles were hidden by me the morning of the day after she arrived at my house. I had intended to do it sooner. This is manifestly a weak point. Like many such things it sounds worse than it is. The more important books were in my study, and into it she did not go till just before the first sitting. One or two photographs she did look at, and these are noted. The safest thing is to assume that she may have looked at everything about the house.

"In order to give better evidence, I obtained permission and immediately thereafter personally overhauled the whole of her luggage. Directories, biographies, Men of our Time, and such-like books were entirely absent. In fact there were scarcely any books at all.

"The eldest child at home was aged nine, and the amount of information at his disposal was fairly well known to us. My wife was sceptically inclined, and was guarded in her utterances; and though a few slips could hardly be avoided - and one or two of these were rather unlucky ones - they were noted and recorded.

"Strange sitters frequently arrived at 11 a.m., and I admitted them myself straight into the room where we were going to sit; they were shortly afterwards introduced to Mrs. Piper under some assumed name.

"The whole attitude of Mrs. Piper was natural, uninquisitive, ladylike, and straightforward. If anything was noticeable it was a trace of languor and self-absorption, very natural under the trying condition of two long trances a day.

"Her whole demeanor struck every one who became intimate with her as utterly beyond and above suspicion."

These statements illustrate the kind of precautions generally taken during the history of the Piper experiments, and they are such that any future suspicions of fraud of any kind must support themselves by specific evidence to account for specific facts and to explain the collective force of the results where the means would have to be so vast, when they are known to have been very meager, to ascertain a small portion of the information imparted by Mrs. Piper's trances. The whole burden of proof now rests upon the man who persists in irresponsible talk and suspicion of fraud. I say boldly that no intelligent man, whether scientific or otherwise, would any longer advance such an hypothesis without giving specific evidence that it is a fact rather than an imaginary possibility.

There have been several sitters during the history of the case who thought they detected signs of conscious fraud, but these were mere impressions formed from lack of acquaintance with trance phenomena and from first sittings, or from single sittings. But it is manifest that no man has the right to make up his mind from any single or first experiments, nor to trust to suspicions and impressions induced by a vague knowledge of trance phenomena. Moreover those who have expressed this suspicion have, in some cases, admitted its weakness and in some other cases its error or insufficiency as evidentially considered. Mr. Myers sums up the whole case as follows:

"On the whole, I believe that all observers, both in America and in England, who have seen enough of Mrs. Piper in both states to be able to form a judgment, will agree in affirming (1) that many of the facts given could not have been learnt even by a skilled detective; (2) that to learn others of them, although possible, would have needed an expenditure of money as well as of time which it seems impossible to suppose that Mrs. Piper could have met; and (3) that her conduct has never given any ground whatever for supposing her capable of fraud or trickery. Few persons have been so long and so carefully observed; and she has left on all observers the impression of thorough uprightness, candour, and honesty."

2. Psychological Incidents of the Case

The psychological interest in this and similar cases begins with what is called the "control" in the parlance of the spiritualists. It will be necessary to explain briefly for the average layman what this means. The scientific man understands its meaning well enough, and it will only be necessary in this work to indicate clearly the use of the term as it must be employed to make the Piper and similar cases intelligible in their superficial characteristics at least. The "control" claims to be a discarnate spirit, and is the agency, whether a real or alleged force outside the living organism of the medium, that exercises an influence over this organism to produce the effects recorded. If it be the secondary personality or subconscious mental action of the medium it acts like a real person and controls the motor or muscular system precisely as does the normal consciousness. If it be a spirit it exercises this control of the medium's organism in the same manner as the normal subject, whether this be the primary or secondary personality. The "control" always gives itself another name than that of the normal person, and in this way represents the appearance of something independent of the known person and organism. It is a frequent phenomenon in secondary personality.

Apparently the first "control" in the experience of Mrs. Piper, which manifested itself soon after her first visit to the mediumistic physician mentioned, called herself "Chlorine" and claimed to be an Indian girl. The "control" of the mediumistic physician, Mr. Cocke, whom she visited, professed to be a French physician whose name was pronounced "Finny." This of course became known to Mrs. Piper in the process of her "development," and in some of her early trances, as reported by some of the sitters, the name of the "control" was pronounced "Finny" or "Fin-ne," and afterward became "Phinuit," pronounced "Finwee." It is evident that the assumption of this name is complicated with suggestion either in the normal consciousness or in the abnormal condition of the trance. The "evolution" of this personality is indicated in some detail by Dr. Hodgson's first report in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.

After this personality became more definitely developed it was induced to give its personal history, claiming to be the spirit of a French physician. I quote Dr. Hodgson's statements with quotations from the record:

"In reply to my inquiries on different occasions, Phinuit stated that his full name was Jean Phinuit Scliville. 'Phinuit is one of my names; Scliville is my other name; Dr. Jean Phinuit Scliville; they always called me Dr. Phinuit.' He was unable to tell the year of his birth or the year of his death, but by putting together several of his statements, it would appear that he was born about 1790 and died about 1860. He was born in Marseilles, went to school and studied medicine at a college called 'Merciana' (?) College, where he took his degree when he was between twenty-five and twenty-eight years old. He also studied medicine at 'Metz, in Germany.' At the age of thirty-five he married Marie Latimer, who had a sister named Josephine. Marie was thirty years of age when he married her, and died when she was about fifty. He had no children."

He mentioned the "Hospital of God," or "Hospital de Dieu" (Hotel Dieu), and referred to Dupuytren and Bovier, the former of whom is known to have been a distinguished French physician and surgeon who was born in 1777 and died in 1835. But there were contradictions in Phinuit's story of himself and in addition to this inquiries as to the existence of any such person in France did not confirm the story in a single detail. The consequence was that he has always been treated and must be treated in the discussion of these phenomena as a secondary personality of Mrs. Piper. But on any theory he is the central psychological phenomenon of the case for the apparent management of it in its early history. It was through the intermediation of this personality that the phenomena took on a spiritistic appearance and that many of the incidents clearly referring to the personal identity of other deceased persons were produced. I shall speak of the period of his "control" as the Phinuit regime.

The demand was made of Phinuit that he prove his identity as a condition of accepting his claim to be a spirit. But, as we have seen, he never succeeded in effecting this desired result. But he acted as intermediary for the "communication" of facts which distinctly suggested the survival and presence of other deceased persons. Whether the incidents are more than telepathy may explain is not the question at present, but only the circumstance that they were what we would expect a discarnate person to tell, in part at least, to prove its identity, and they apparently took the explanation of the phenomena beyond the scope of secondary personality. Many things were done that bore evidence of being supernormal without being facts suggesting a spiritistic source. They rather suggested clairvoyance or telepathy or both, as they were not related to the personal identity, of deceased persons. Consequently there was difficulty with any one theory in attempts to explain the phenomena. The confusion and fragmentary character of the "messages" were so great that a cautious scientific man had to reserve opinions or venture upon the most tentative hypotheses, until the causes of the limitations in the "communications" could be ascertained. The prevailing hypothesis, with many, though a tentative view to help mental suspense while additional facts were accumulating, was that of telepathy and secondary personality combined. Phinuit was the supposed secondary personality of Mrs. Piper possessed with telepathic powers. But there was no clear assurance that this hypothesis really explained the phenomena.

The Phinuit regime continued uninterruptedly until 1892, when a very interesting modification of the phenomena appeared, though still continuing for some years the chief "control" of Phinuit. While Dr. Hodgson was carrying on his experiments, a young man who had been a personal friend suddenly died in New York. He is called in the Reports by the name of George Pelham. This is a pseudonym adopted out of respect to the feelings of his living relatives. But he was a graduate of Harvard University, and as indicated by Dr. Hodgson, "he was a lawyer by training, but had devoted himself chiefly to literature and philosophy, and had published two books which received the highest praise from competent authorities. He had resided for many years in Boston or its vicinity, but for three years preceding his death had been living in New York in bachelor apartments. He was an Associate of our Society, his interest in which was explicable rather by an intellectual openness and fearlessness characteristic of him than by any tendency to believe in supernormal phenomena. He was in a sense well known to me personally, but chiefly on his intellectual side; the bond between us was not that of an old, intimate, and if I may so speak, emotional friendship. We had several long talks together on philosophic subjects, and one very long discussion, probably at least two years before his death, on the possibility of a 'future life.' In this he maintained that in accordance with a fundamental philosophic theory which we both accepted, a 'future life' was not only incredible, but inconceivable. At the conclusion of the discussion he admitted that a future life was conceivable, but he did not accept its credibility, and vowed that if he should die before I did, and found himself 'still existing' he would 'make things lively' in the effort to reveal the fact of his continued existence."

This George Pelham died early in the year of 1892. Dr. Hodgson heard of his death a day or two after its occurrence and was present several days at sittings during the following weeks, but no reference was made through Mrs. Piper to George Pelham. Between four and five weeks after his death Dr. Hodgson was present at a sitting by a friend of George Pelham's and during it George Pelham's full name was given and many names and incidents that suggested the personal identity of the deceased person by that name. Sittings held by friends of the deceased man revealed more and more evidence of his identity which Phinuit could never furnish for himself, and among them was a reference to his promise to Dr. Hodgson to "make things lively," if he lived after death. The experiments were continued for several years before Dr. Hodgson would commit himself to the spiritistic interpretation of the phenomena. It was in the process of these experiments that the automatic writing of Mrs. Piper was developed, apparently under the agency of this George Pelham, Phinuit having always employed vocal speech for his "communications." The resort to automatic writing was a great help in keeping the record which has been practically perfect ever since.

George Pelham soon came to exercise the functions of a "control" and for a time there were "communications" by speech and writing at the same time, Phinuit "talking" and Pelham "writing." In the course of this work, however, a remarkable and interesting change took place which shall be described in the language of Dr. Hodgson:

"In the summer of 1895, when a friend of mine was having a series of sittings with Mrs. Piper, and asking questions of George Pelham, certain statements were made by George Pelham denying the so-called 'obsession by evil spirits.' My friend referred to the alleged 'Spirit Teachings' published by W. S. Moses, and the result of the conversation was that later on W. S. Moses purported to communicate at my friend's request through Mrs. Piper's trance. He was confused and incoherent - and George Pelham offered a warning to that effect. He gave entirely wrong names in reply to questions concerning the real identity of the Imperator, Doctor, and Rector mentioned in his 'Spirit Teachings,' and failed later in attempting to answer test questions propounded by some of his friends. Later still, however, he did furnish some private information unknown to the sitters, and afterwards verified in England, and well adapted so far as it went as an indication of identity.

"I shall not enter into detail concerning the professed appearances of W. S. Moses at later sittings. Mrs. Piper gave few sittings in the winter of 1895-6, and early in 1896 underwent a second operation, resuming her sittings in October of that year. I pointed out to George Pelham the importance of making W. S. Moses 'clear,' and getting the answers to my test questions. The final result was that W. S. Moses professed to get the assistance of his former 'controls,' who, after communicating on various occasions directly in November and December, 1896, and January, 1897, demanded that the control of Mrs. Piper's 'light' should be placed in their hands. In other words, 'Imperator' claimed that the indiscriminate experimenting with Mrs. Piper's organism should stop, that it was a 'battered and worn' machine and needed much repairing; that 'he' with his 'assistants,' 'Doctor,' etc., would repair it as far as possible, and that in the meantime other persons must be kept away. I then for the first time explained to the normal Mrs. Piper about W. S. Moses and his alleged relation to 'Imperator,' and she was willing to follow my advice and try this new experiment - to which I may say I was repeatedly and emphatically urged by the communicating George Pelham. I explained at the following sitting to 'Imperator' that the medium and myself agreed to the change. Much of what followed later was personal and non-evidential. It was stated that there were many difficulties in the way of clear communication, due chiefly to the fact that so many inferior and perturbed communicators had been using the machine. Phinuit's last appearance was on January 26th, 1897. Later on, other alleged 'communicators' were specified as persons who would not injure the 'light,' in addition to what I might call W. S. Moses's group, and various persons who have had sittings in previous years with Mrs. Piper had opportunities of being present, and some new sitters also. Those who had sittings in previous years and who have been present since the change which I have described, were all struck by the improvement in the clearness and coherence of the communications from their 'deceased' friends. Most remarkable has been the change in Mrs. Piper herself, in her general feeling of well-being, and in her manner of passing into trance. Instead of the somewhat violent contortions which she was apt to show in earlier years when Phinuit 'controlled,' she passes into trance calmly, easily, gently, and whereas there used to be frequently indications of dislike and shrinking when she was losing consciousness, the reverse is now the case; she seems rather to rejoice at her 'departure,' and to be in the first instance depressed and disappointed when, after the trance is over, she 'comes to herself' once more in this 'dark world' of ours and realizes her physical surroundings. Various attempts by these new 'controls' to describe contemporaneous incidents occurring elsewhere in this world have been notable failures. On the other hand there have been a few cases (said in 1898) under this regime where opportunity has been given for tests purporting to come from recently 'deceased' persons. And in these cases, so far as I can judge, and so far as the incidents go, the results as a whole have been much clearer and more coherent than they were in similar cases formerly."

The reader must remember that all this material which I have been quoting was produced through the automatic writing of Mrs. Piper, and it is here described as if it were actual conversation between the living. Mrs. Piper goes into a "trance" whose nature we do not know, except that it involves the suspension of her normal consciousness and in this condition the alleged messages from discarnate spirits are written visibly by her own hand. Her head lies upon a pillow placed upon a table and is turned away from the writing. The tests for anaesthesia or her unconscious state were exceptionally severe and such as are never employed by physicians to ascertain a similar condition. The writing does not present any special mystery to the scientific mind, as it is familiar with automatic work of this kind where there is no pretense or evidence of discarnate intervention. It is the contents of the "messages" that suggest some extraordinary origin, at least simulative of spiritistic communications. This representation of it, whatever its real character, whether merely subconscious and dramatic play by Mrs. Piper's secondary state, or the result of an independent spiritistic intelligence, is the only way to indicate intelligently its psychological interest, and we have only to dismiss from our imaginations all conceptions of visible and tangible appearances in order to understand the nature of the phenomena as facts for psychology, and to appreciate what they represent in the development of the Piper case.

What we now call the "Imperator group," representing alleged spirits, assuming Latin names for reasons that have not been explained and for which we need not care until later discussion, may best be described, for the sake of clearness in understanding, as a group of personalities purporting to take charge of the "communications" from the "other side" precisely in the same manner in which Mrs. Piper has been scientifically managed on this side. From what has been said the reader can perceive that, on any theory whatever of the facts, they appear to be intermediaries for the "communication" of supernormal facts and that their work takes the form of supervision of the whole process. What will be the outcome is not yet known. But they still control the experiments and represent, with the frequent assistance of George Pelham, a most interesting and complicated psychological problem for science. What the Imperator group does cannot be treated as evidence of spirits until they prove their identity, but what is mediated through their action in proof of the identity of others must receive serious consideration of some kind and may indicate the supernormal acquisition of knowledge, while its analysis and explanation may suggest a theory beyond any form of secondary personality that we know.

This brief history of the experiments with Mrs. Piper will afford the general reader some conception of the machinery and difficulties attending the work and of the conditions through which the facts still to be summarised were obtained. I shall proceed next to give some account of these, with this preliminary statement that the reader must ever keep in his mind that they have been obtained under the precautions against possible fraud as indicated in this history and with the supervision and mediation of the trance personalities which have been described.


The article above was taken from James Hyslop's "Science and a Future Life" (1906, Putnam's Sons, London).

More articles by James Hyslop

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