William McDougall

Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, President of the Society for Psychical Research between 1920-21 and of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1921. Member of the Scientific American Committee for the investigation of Margery's mediumship. A keen but reserved investigator who took great care not to commit himself as to the genuine occurrence of the supernormal and agencies of an extra-terrene origin.

Trance Personalities

 - William McDougall -

          "IT GOES without saying that, in order to occupy oneself with the supranormal, it is necessary to admit theoretically the possibility thereof, or, what comes to the same thing, to be sceptical of the infallibility and the perfection of science as it now exists. If I consider it a priori absolutely impossible that an individual should know, long before the arrival of any telegram, of the accident which has just killed his brother on the other side of the world, or that another person can voluntarily move an object at a distance without the use of a thread in a manner inexplicable by the known laws of mechanics and physiology, it is clear that I shall raise my shoulders at every recital of telepathy, and shall not stir a step to take part in a séance with the most celebrated of mediums. Excellent means these for enlarging one's horizon and discovering novelties, to recline upon a completed science and a foregone conclusion, entirely convinced that the universe comes to an end at the opposite wall, and that nothing can exist or occur outside that system of daily routine which we have become accustomed to regard as marking the limits of the Real! That philosophy of the ostrich illustrated formerly by the grotesque pedants at whom Galileo knew not whether to laugh or weep, who refused to put an eye to his telescope for fear of seeing things that had no official right to exist ... that philosophy is still entertained by many brains petrified by intemperate reading of works of popularised science and by unintelligent attendance at university lectures, those two great intellectual dangers of our time."

I open this chapter with the foregoing plea for the open mind. They are the words of the late Prof. Th. Flournoy, philosopher and medically trained psychologist, the investigator of the remarkable case of Hélène Smith, which I am about to present. I cite also after him two other similar pleas which are none the less effective for being of older date. "What shall we think of occultism and spiritism? The theory of these is obscure, the principles vague, uncertain, and somewhat visionary; but there are embarrassing facts, affirmed by serious men who have observed them or have learned them from others like themselves; to accept them all, or to deny them all, seems equally inconvenient, and I venture to say that in this matter, as in all extraordinary matters that go beyond the common rules there is a position to be found between the credulous and the strong-minded." And the second runs: "We are so far from knowledge of all natural agencies and of their diverse modes of action, that it would not be philosophic to deny any phenomena simply because they are inexplicable in the present state of our knowledge. But we ought to examine them with an attention the more painstaking, the more difficult it may seem to accept them as real." The former of these two pleas was made by La Bruyere, the second by the great exponent of the mechanical view of the universe, Laplace. Flournoy proposes to call the principle enunciated by La Bruyere "the principle of Hamlet," and formulates it concisely in the words - "all things are possible." The other he would call "the principle of Laplace" and state briefly in the form - "the weight of the evidence should be proportional to the strangeness of the alleged facts." Armed with these two principles, we may, says Flournoy, move among the alleged evidences of the supernormal without danger of making fools of ourselves, either by too great credulity or by too great incredulity.

In this chapter I propose to discuss a type of multiple personality which is less rare than the type described in the foregoing chapter, but of which nevertheless the true interpretation and classification remain equally obscure and much more debated. These are the personalities manifested in the trances of persons regarded by the spiritists as "mediums." We may use the word "medium" without committing ourselves to accept its literal meaning, without accepting the view that such a person is really a medium of communication between the living and the dead. I would, however, enter a protest against the attitude of most men of science towards the problem raised by these cases, the attitude of dogmatic negation, the dogmatic negation of every interpretation that does not seem to conform readily with the general principles of science as at present formulated. Some of the acutest intellects of our time have paid much attention to this problem, and, failing to reconcile the evidence with the principles of science, have regarded it as demanding a continued suspension of judgment and as pointing to the possibility of a great extension of our knowledge of man's nature and a revision of the view of his place in the universe implied by the current formulations of science. Of the names of such men, I will mention only four - Henry Sidgwick, William James, Henri Bergson, and Hans Driesch(1). When such men have studied the evidence over many years and have pronounced themselves convinced that it is of a nature which demands further careful study, it is surely a little presumptuous for young scientists who have never deigned to pay any attention to it to dismiss it with indifference or contempt. I shall not attempt to present or discuss in these pages the evidence in question. Any such attempt would require a large volume. But no survey of the field of abnormal psychology can properly ignore the manifestations of the mediumistic trance.

(1) Cf. especially Prof. Driesch's recent work, The Crisis in Psychology.

The common feature of these secondary personalities of the trance mediums is that they claim to be manifestations of personalities formerly living and now surviving in some disembodied condition. There are transitional cases, such as Sleeping Margaret(2) in which the secondary personality makes this claim in a hesitating manner, and makes little or no endeavour to support it. But in the common run of such cases the trance personality seems to appear more or less full-blown, and to claim from the outset identity with some departed spirit. Another distinguishing mark of secondary personalities of this class is that their appearance commonly involves no appreciable change of the normal personality, no amnesia, no departure from health, except during the actual manifestation of the secondary personality. And, though they manifest themselves most commonly during a trance, or deep sleep-like condition of the normal personality, that is not always the case. In some instances they are manifested only by automatic writing, or, more rarely, by automatic speech. A further difference, consonant with the last, is that a secondary personality of this type, though it may, in some cases, claim to know something, much or little, of the inner life of the normal personality, does not usually share the memories of that personality or in any sense claim them as its own. Further, unlike the other types, it does not admit itself to be tied to the body of the medium or to share in its vicissitudes, but rather to be entirely independent of it, except in so far as the body is useful as a medium or instrument of communication.

(2) p. 502.

There is, however, no sharp line to be drawn between the types we are comparing. The secondary personality in Case 57 (page 495) stoutly claimed to be the surviving spirit of a Spanish gipsy of the seventeenth century, sustained the role with very fair consistency, and was accepted as such by the primary personality and by many of her friends.

Among the many cases of the trance-medium type, one stands out pre-eminent by reason of the richness and variety of the phenomena presented, of the thoroughness and competence with which it was studied, and of the success attending the endeavour to throw the light of science upon its complexities; I mean the case of Hélène Smith, most admirably studied and reported by Th. Flournoy, late professor of psychology at Geneva(3). The case combines almost all the features of interest discovered by other mediums, with the exception of the alleged supernormal physical phenomena; from every point of view it must rank as a classical case, and is deserving of our most respectful consideration.

(3) Des Indes à la Planète Mars, Geneva, 1899. The study of Flournoy was supplemented by those of several of his colleagues, and no less than seven books have been devoted to this famous case.

Case 60: Hélène Smith was a young woman who filled with success a responsible position in a large house of business. In normal life she was in every respect a capable and altogether admirable person. Having become a participator in the séances of a private circle of spiritists, she very soon showed mediumistic powers, which rapidly developed and were manifested through a long period to a circle of admiring and deeply interested friends, many of whom were persons of much intelligence and cultivation. "Her mediumship has presented from the first a complex type...: visions in the waking state, accompanied by automatic speech and writing and auditory hallucinations. From the point of view of their content, these messages have for the most part referred to past events, of which the persons present were usually ignorant, but the reality of which was always verified by recourse to historical works or the traditions of the families concerned. To these phenomena of retrocognition or of supernormal memory were added occasionally, according to the circumstances, moral exhortations dictated automatically, more, frequently in verse than in prose, and addressed to the persons present; medical consultations with prescriptions that were generally happily chosen; communications from relatives or friends recently deceased; lastly revelations as piquant as they were unverifiable upon the former lives [i.e., previous incarnations] of the members of the circle, who, almost without exception, convinced spiritists as they were, learned with some astonishment that they were the reincarnation of Coligny, of Vergniaud, of the Princess Lamballe, or of other historical personages. It should be added that all these messages seemed to be more or less connected with the mysterious presence of a 'spirit' responding to the name of Leopold, who claimed to be the guide and protector of the medium."

At first the automatisms occurred in the waking state; but soon, as is not unusual in such cases, the medium fell into trance before or during the manifestations, and, on recovering her normal consciousness, had no recollection of the events of the trance period. This semi-voluntary falling into trance as soon as the conditions are set for a séance is in itself an interesting phenomenon common to many such cases. Flournoy discovered that during the automatisms of the waking state the medium (henceforward H) was subject to a variety of disturbances of sensory and motor functions. At the first trance Leopold appeared and took charge of the proceedings; and from this time onward the somewhat fragmentary communications of earlier sittings became elaborated into long-continued romantic dramas.

In addition to revelations of the life and personality of Leopold, these communications took the form for the most part of three dramatic stories; thus "we have to do with four subconscious creations of vast extent, which have evolved side by side through several years, manifesting in irregular alternations in the course of different séances, and often also in the same séance. They have, no doubt, a common origin in the depths of H and they have not developed without influencing one another and establishing certain points of contact in the course of time."

It appeared that H had twice lived upon the earth before her present incarnation. Once five hundred years ago as an Arab chief's daughter, who (Simandini by name) became the favourite wife of a Hindu prince. This prince, Sivrouka, reigned over a kingdom of Kanara, and constructed, in 1401, the fortress of Tchandraguiri. This romance was developed with a wealth of detail; and the astonishing features of it were, first, that research in old and little-known books on Indian history confirmed some of the details, such as the names of places and persons described; secondly, that Simandini uttered (in the trance automatisms) many Hindu words and phrases, sometimes appropriately used, sometimes mingled with other words which the experts failed to identify, and wrote also similar phrases in Arabic script. Further, the entranced medium would act the role of Simandini, putting other members of the circle into the vacant places of the drama. "All this various mimicry and this exotic speech have so strongly the marks of originality, of ease, of naturalness, that one asks with stupefaction whence comes to this daughter of Lake Leman, without artistic training and without special knowledge of the Orient, a perfection of art which the best of actresses might attain only at the cost of prolonged studies or by residence on the banks of the Ganges."

Flournoy confesses that he has not been able to resolve the mystery, especially the Hindu language and the historical statements about the kingdom of Kanara, statements which after much research were verified in an old and rare book, to which, so far as could be ascertained, H had never had access. Nevertheless, he was able to show that this knowledge of the ancient kingdom showed distinct traces of its derivation by one unknown route or another from the one book in which its history is recorded, and that the few words of Arabic script were written in a manner which indicated that they reproduced visual images of the words retained without understanding of them. And he concludes that the whole Hindu drama was a subconsciously elaborated fantasy, incorporating very skilfully fragments of knowledge picked up in haphazard fashion. "I do not think that this is to do too much honour to the subliminal faculties - in view of all that we know of their promptitude, their delicacy, their perspicacity, sometimes so astonishingly fine and exquisite."

The second drama of reincarnation presented by H was that of Queen Marie Antoinette. This royal cycle also was developed with a wealth of imaginative detail, and but little of historical fact; and, since sources for such knowledge as was revealed were easily accessible, this knowledge presented no such difficult problem as that of the Hindu drama. Flournoy writes: "One sees in these examples the mixture of preparation, of repetition, and of improvisation, implied by the varied incidents ... It is probable that if one could witness, or if Mlle. Smith could remember, all the spontaneous automatisms which have contributed to the royal romance, night-dreams, hypnogogic visions, subconscious fantasies during waking, etc., one would be the spectator of endless imaginary conversations with the marquis, with Philippe, with Cagliostro, and all the fictitious personages who have appeared occasionally in the somnambulic scenes of Marie Antoinette. It was by such labours, submerged and ignored, and perhaps never interrupted, that were prepared and slowly elaborated the personality of the Queen of France, who burst forth and displayed herself with so much magnificence in the evenings spent with Philippe of Orleans and the Marquis de Mirabeau." And he points out that the whole drama was of just that compensatory nature which we have learned to expect in fantasies. H was a girl of refinement who secretly aspired to social distinctions and, like many such children, had conceived that perhaps she was in reality the child of some unknown magnates; and her very restricted mode of life and occupation had favoured the flowering of such fantasies. "They express the experience of the bitter irony of things, of the fruitless revolt, of the fatality ruling human life. They whisper that all that is happy and brilliant in life is but an illusion, soon dispelled. The daily negation of desires and of dreams by implacable and brutal reality could find in the hypnoid imagination no more adequate compensation, no symbol more emotionally satisfying, than the royal lady, whose existence seemed made for the heights of happiness and glory and ended on the scaffold."

The third drama consisted in the manifestation, through the medium, of a young man, the deceased son of a member of the circle, who claimed to have been translated to the planet Mars and who revealed with a wealth of detail the strange customs, the environment, and the language of the inhabitants of that planet. Here the interest of the investigator was centred in the language of the Martians rather than in the florid and fanciful descriptions of the flora, persons, customs, and habitations of the planet. A key that rendered possible a translation of the language having been obtained from the Martian visitor, a careful study of the abundant material showed that the language was essentially composed of European roots, and chiefly French. "I submit that the Martian language is a natural language in the sense that it has been automatically incubated without the conscious participation of Mlle. Smith, in the emotional state or by the secondary sell which is the source of all the rest of this cycle." And Flournoy proceeds to display "the traits which seem to show that the inventor of all this subliminal language has never known any idiom other than the French, that she is much more alive to verbal forms than to the logical relations of ideas, and that she possesses in an eminent degree that infantile or puerile quality which I have already demonstrated in the author of the Martian romance." Of the latter he writes All the traits that I have demonstrated in the author of the Martian romance, and many others, may be resumed under one heading - the profoundly infantile quality. Only the candour and the imperturbable naiveté of childhood, which has no doubts because it has no knowledge, could launch itself seriously upon an enterprise such as the ostensibly exact and authentic drawings of all the features of an unknown world, or could attain an imaginary success by simply changing and colouring in Oriental travesties and bizarre puerilities the familiar environment of this earth. Never would an adult person, of moderate cultivation and some experience of life, waste her time in elaborating such fancies - MIle. Smith less than most others, intelligent and mature as she is in her normal state." In other words, Flournoy shows abundant reasons for believing that the Martian romance was constructed by some infantile subconscious personality within the organisation of the medium, a personality not unlike Sally Beauchamp or Margaret (of the Fischer case), but one of a more romantic trend and one which never "came out" to dominate the whole organism in the waking state.

It remains only to tell the story of Leopold, a personality who, more closely than any of the other manifestations of this case, conforms to the type of the mediumistic trance personality or "control," the possessing or controlling and invading spirit of a deceased person.

Leopold played consistently the role of a discreet adviser and benevolent guardian to H. He manifested himself in visual hallucinations, in automatic speech and writing, and in various other automatisms, most commonly during trance, but also at other times. He disclosed the claim that beneath the pseudonym of Leopold was hidden the personality of the famous Cagliostro. Of him Flournoy writes: "One could not conceive of a being more independent, and more different from Mlle. Smith herself, having a character more personal, an individuality more marked, and an existence more positive."

Nevertheless Flournoy arrived at an adverse verdict upon this claim. He shows how, in all probability, the personality of this guardian spirit took shape in the depth of H's organism.

At ten years of age H had been protected from the attack of a savage dog by a stranger of imposing and romantic appearance. Flournoy traces to this incident the birth of Leopold. On several subsequent occasions when H was in various ways threatened, she hallucinated this figure. But it was not until the immersion in spiritistic séances had gone far that Leopold began to play a more prominent role. One of the spiritist circles frequented by the budding medium was of a very mixed character, and some of its junior members permitted themselves to attempt liberties not consonant with H's high standards of propriety. Flournoy finds reason to believe that these circumstances engendered in H a conflict between, on the one hand, her natural enjoyment of her role as the admired of all observers and her desire to continue it and, on the other hand, her equally natural reserve and modesty. Out of this conflict Leopold emerged, embodying (if so material a word may be used) or integrating the tendencies making for discretion and reserve. Under his influence H withdrew from that particular circle. Thus, says Flournoy, Leopold represents "the quintessence and the flourishing of the most hidden springs of the psychophysiologic organism. He sprang forth from that mysterious depth in which are immersed the ultimate roots of our individual being, roots by which we are connected with the species itself and perhaps with the absolute, and whence sound obscurely our instincts of physical and moral conservation, our sentiments related to the sexes, the modesty of soul and senses, all that which is most obscure, most intimate, and least rational in the individual." And Flournoy was able to trace the influences which seem to have played a determining part in casting this personality in the role of Cagliostro, that long-deceased Italian who in this reappearance knew nothing of the Italian language and displayed only a very sketchy acquaintance with the history of his former life.

Flournoy cites various incidents of which he writes: "These examples suffice to allow us to see how, from a purely psychological point of view, one may conceive the formation of this secondary personality. It is made up of normal pre-existing tendencies of a very intimate nature, which took form in the infancy and youth of Mlle. Smith, to synthesise themselves separately from the rest of the ordinary consciousness on the occasion of certain emotional shocks, and which, thanks to the favourable influence of the spiritistic exercises, have succeeded in assuming the form of a personality under the mask (of suggestive origin) of Leopold-Cagliostro."

Flournoy shows that there is no absolute separation between the mental organisation of Leopold and that of the normal H. "It is rather an interlacing, the limits of which are vague and difficult to define. Leopold knows and foresees and recalls much of which the normal personality knows absolutely nothing, owing simply to amnesia on her part or to her having always been ignorant of it. On the other hand, he by no means commands all the memories of H; he knows nothing of a large part of her daily life; even some striking incidents escape him entirely ... the two personalities are not coextensive; each surpasses the other in certain points, so that one cannot say which, on the whole, is the more extensive."

Flournoy finds it impossible to affirm with confidence that the two personalities ever coexisted, were ever coconscious. He thinks it possible that the appearances pointing to such coconscious existence may really imply merely a rapid alternation of the two conscious personalities. But it is possible that, if he were able to review the facts of this case in the light of such more recent studies as those reported in the foregoing chapter, he would relinquish this natural prejudice against the recognition of coconscious personalities within the one organism.

Flournoy thus repudiates decidedly the spiritistic hypothesis of "possession," holding that the facts of the case of Hélène Smith do not call for it. At the same time he admits that some knowledge was displayed the acquisition of which by normal means would seem to have been well-nigh impossible; and he recognises that the assumption of the reality of telepathic communication would go far to account for these otherwise inexplicable facts. He sums up his conclusions in the following wise words. "The fact of the primitive nature and the different ages of the diverse hypnoidal lucubrations of Mlle. Smith seems to me to constitute the most interesting feature of her mediumship. It tends to show that the secondary personalities are probably at their origin ... phenomena of reversion of the ordinary actual personality, survivals or momentary returns of inferior phases, which have been left behind for a longer or shorter time and which normally would have been absorbed in the development of the individual in place of springing forth in strange proliferations. Just as teratology illustrates and explains embryology, and as both of them contribute to illuminate anatomy, so one may hope that the study of the facts of mediumship will contribute to furnish us one day with a true and fertile view of normal mental development, which in return will enable us better to understand the appearance of these curious phenomena, and that the whole of psychology will gain a better and more exact conception of human personality."

I have cited Flournoy's account of this case at some length not only because it combines so many interesting features and was studied and reported in a manner that is beyond criticism, but also because it is historically interesting in that it shows that Flournoy had anticipated much that is now becoming common doctrine, and the credit for which is commonly assigned to later writers. We see how Flournoy, writing in the nineteenth century, made use of the conceptions of conflict, repression, and regression, and how, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he saw that such cases cannot be understood in terms of any purely associationist or intellectualist psychology, but only in terms of one which takes account of the instinctive tendencies of our nature and recognises that the normal unitary personality is the product of a process by which these diverse tendencies are integrated into one harmonious system.

Other Trance Personalities

I do not propose to describe any other cases of this type, but will add merely a few words concerning some of the most famous cases.

Of all such cases, those of Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Leonard are perhaps the most deserving of attention, by reason of the care with which they have been studied and the extensive evidence of supernormal knowledge furnished by them. These two cases are in many respects very similar. Mrs. Piper's trances have recurred through many years, and, though certain changes in the personalities and in the modes of communication have occurred, such changes have been less striking than the continuity and constancy of the manifestations. There are certain "controls," personalities who, like Leopold in the Hélène Smith case, play the part of master of ceremonies and of mediator between the investigator and other personalities. But sometimes these other personalities, some of whom claim to be identical with deceased persons well-known to the investigator, seem to manifest themselves directly in the automatic speech or writing of the medium. In some of these instances the speech or writing seems to reveal traits that impress the observer as highly characteristic of the personality impersonated. But the chief interest and the most difficult problem presented is the fact that the "automatic" speech or writing seems to contain, among much that may seem irrelevant, statements of facts that, so far as careful investigation can ascertain, could not have come to the knowledge of the medium in any normal fashion, any fashion recognised by science, or, in other words, through the senses of the medium.

In face of the evidence of such supernormally acquired knowledge in these two cases (and the same is true in less degree of other cases) all, or almost all, of those who have competently and open-mindedly considered the evidence acknowledge themselves in the presence of a dilemma: either the personalities are what they claim to be, or they are secondary personalities of the mediums who have the faculty of acquiring knowledge in ways not recognised by science.

In view of other evidence for the reality of telepathy, the direct communication of mind with mind without the use of sense-perception, the least extravagant hypothesis for the interpretation of the facts is the hypothesis that such subconscious or secondary personalities have wide-reaching powers of telepathic reception. It is only fair to add that some very competent students of such cases hold strongly the opinion that the telepathic hypothesis will not cover the facts. Some claim that it is necessary to postulate at least far-reaching "clairvoyance" in addition to telepathy. It is obvious that, if both telepathy and "clairvoyance" be postulated, the possibility of finding in such cases evidence that will suffice to establish the claim of identity with, or communication with, deceased personalities, becomes very remote.


The article above was taken from William McDougall's An Outline of Abnormal Psychology (1926, Methuen & Co. Ltd).

Related Material

Home | About Us | Latest News | Investigators | Articles | Experiments | Photographs | Theory | Online Library | Links | Recommended Books | Contact Us | Glossary | Search


Some parts of this page © The International Survivalist Society 2004