Konstantin Oesterreich

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tübingen, an authority on religious psychology, the first modern scientist in Germany who publicly declared his belief in psychic phenomena. In 1921 he published two books: Grundbegriffe Parapsychologie and Der Okkultismus im modernen Weltbied. In the latter he testified to materialisation and telekinesis as facts.

Mrs Piper and Psychometry

- Konstantin Oesterreich -

          THE CASE of the medium, Hélène Smith, did not present any special problem in its main manifestations. The strictly supernormal phenomena were not sufficiently frequent to be either understood or admitted. It is a different matter when we come to the American medium, Mrs. Piper. Mrs. Piper, at an earlier date than Hélène Smith, produced supernormal phenomena with such regularity and under such unimpeachable conditions that they can, with the greatest probability, be regarded as established facts. For decades she was under scientific observation and the result never varied. Thus we have here a case of which the supernormal character is above all suspicion. It is therefore no longer a question of. the problem of the existence of supernormality; the problem lies in the ways and manners of its evolution.

Mrs. Piper was a married woman of the Boston middle-classes. Her scientific discoverer was William James, whose attention was drawn to her in 1885. The manner of his discovery was both unromantic and unscientific in character; in fact, it sounds more like an old wives' tale. James's sister-in-law told him one day of an unknown woman who had been able to give details about the writer of an Italian letter, who was a stranger to her, simply by placing the letter on her forehead. James was sceptical, but sufficiently curious and interested to look Mrs. Piper up for himself. At her first sitting, however, his former suspicious attitude was replaced by the conviction that Mrs. Piper was producing supernormal psychic phenomena. In her trance she was able to give detailed information regarding James's relatives, though none of these lived in the neighbourhood. Some had settled in California, others in Maine, some were already dead.

She knew that one of James's children was dead. "Your child," said the spirit which claimed to be talking through Mrs. Piper to James, "has a playfellow here in our world, a boy named Robert Fr―"; and this name was found to be the actual name of a child who had died. James himself believed the information to be incorrect, and that the child referred to had been a little girl. Inquiries proved, however, that it was not the spirit which was wrong, but James - it was a boy. The medium made correct assertions about James - "You have just killed a grey-white cat by means of ether." James's mother-in-law lost a cheque book; it was found through her indications.

Curiously enough, though he visited Mrs. Piper several times, James did not undertake any further personal examination of the medium for quite a time, though he kept himself permanently informed about her through his friend Richard Hodgson, the Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research. The latter, except when away on a journey, instituted regular sittings several times weekly over a period of twenty years, from the date of his arrival in America (1887) until his death in 1906. He carried out this duty, if not always in the best of tempers, yet with the utmost conscientiousness and in a most businesslike fashion. He also undertook to introduce to Mrs. Piper all the visitors who came to see her, as she considered it to be her religious duty to place her strange gift at the service of science.

Shorthand reports of the automatic statements of the medium were taken down at innumerable sittings. In later years automatic writing came to the fore, and voluminous records emanating from the supposed spirits were the result. In 1900 the proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research had already published 1,500 pages on Mrs. Piper alone, of which half was devoted to the minutes of her sittings. Since then, further comprehensive publications have been printed, so that the present material in hand comprises some 3,200 pages, though many records of the sittings and inspirational writings have not been printed. To these must be added other material on the subject published elsewhere. No other medium, with the exception of Eusapia Palladino, has been examined so often.

As time went on, Mrs. Piper's mediumistic faculties became fainter. She found increasing difficulty in falling into a trance, and indeed this became impossible after the middle of 1911, owing, possibly to the after-effects of a shock experienced at certain experimental sittings with the psychologist, Stanley Hall, and his assistant, Miss Tanner. Despite this, she was still able to produce automatic writing in a state of normal consciousness.

The manner in which the supernormal phenomena manifested themselves through Mrs. Piper during a lifetime is common to all mediums. She fell, into a trance, and the spirits then spoke through her. At least so it happened at first, though, later on, automatic writing was more prevalent. But even so, for many years Mrs. Piper remained in a state of trance when writing. In order to attain this state at first she merely held some one's hand; after a few minutes' spasmodic movements set in, resembling a slight epileptic attack, with a lessening of the cutaneous sensibility. Then came the state of impersonation. Mrs. Piper apparently withdrew from her organism, and other individualities took her place. Their number is a very considerable one, certain of them recurring often, Phinuit, George Pelham, Rector, Imperator, and others; and later; after their death; Myers and Hodgson. The "controls," or impersonating spirits, however, were not always themselves the communicators on their own behalf. It not infrequently happened that one or the other of the impersonating spirits volunteered the information that other spirits were present who said certain things ("communicators"). The lifelike resemblance of those impersonated must, according to the reports, have been unusually strong; character, voice and demeanour were almost uncannily accurate.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Piper is not distinguished by any specific peculiarities from numerous other mediums of lesser qualifications. The interest of her manifestations rests in the first place on the knowledge shown by the impersonated individuals, or rather by Mrs. Piper in the impersonation trance. This knowledge was not infrequently of supernormal nature - not so much as regards its subject as in the manner in which that Mrs. Piper was able to obtain it.

The character of supernormal phenomena always remained the same. When Mrs. Piper in trance was apparently controlled by certain personalities, she often gave information concerning the name, character and past of those present as well of others known to them, either alive or dead. These details were always quite uninteresting: the description of some one's cane, what sort of cuff-links he wore, and from whom he had received them as a present, etc. She made a point of reminding those present of various little details of their past, of which she was quite unlikely to have heard. Such information was mainly forthcoming when objects belonging to those interested were placed before Mrs. Piper (Psychometry). The knowledge which she had of deceased persons was so astounding that many a sceptic, entirely opposed to spiritualism, became a convert. The immediate impression produced by the automatic writing or conversation and the seemingly direct intercourse with spirits, who declared themselves by questions and answers, were apparently much more convincing than is the subsequent reading of the minutes of the sittings. This explains how it was that even an investigator of such strength of mind as Hodgson, who originally belonged entirely to the positivist school of thought, was converted to spiritualism. His friend, George Pelham, was apparently impersonated - after his recent death - in Mrs. Piper, and reminded Hodgson of the varied details of their former philosophical conversations. Further, the "spirit" greeted all his old acquaintances. His parents were presented to him under an assumed name; but in vain, for he recognized them nevertheless. All this made such a profound impression on Hodgson that he came to the conclusion that the spiritistic interpretation was justified. The craving to learn more about life after death from his own experience became overwhelming, and he is reported shortly before his death to have said that he could hardly contain his impatience:

"I can hardly wait to die."

James had a similar experience after Hodgson's death, with the latter's impersonation. The resemblance to the deceased and the supernormal nature of the information volunteered was so great that "I felt a slight shiver down my spine, as though I really had been talking to my old friend." And he too, who had for years defended the anti-spiritistic standpoint against Hodgson, now no longer felt able to reject entirely the spiritist explanation.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Piper did not obtain her knowledge by normal methods. Those who have studied but a few passages of the shorthand notes of the minutes must be certain of this. True, it is dry reading (at least, for those who are not greatly interested in such problems), for the notes are very trite and ordinary for the main part. The chief interest invariably centres in the question how Mrs. Piper could have known of these intimate details. And even Stanley Hall, who apparently possesses the typical positivistic scepticism of the average experimental psychologist, admits that "the control seems to possess faculties that appear supernormal."

The problem no longer runs: "Do supernormal phenomena occur in the case of Mrs. Piper?" but "Which hypothesis is the more likely to explain them?"

Disciples of the spiritistic interpretation draw attention to further considerations. For instance, spirits who are impersonated in a medium soon after death make extremely confused statements, as if they lad not yet completely found themselves. This is particularly noticeable with regard to the spirits of those who died from mental or similar diseases, tending to prove that they still bear traces of their mental deficiencies. It also happened that one of the "spirits," who was impersonated in Mrs. Piper, explained to a lady present at the séance, that he had just appeared to one of her relatives who had died immediately afterwards. It was proved later that the person in question had actually died and that the "spirit" had actually appeared to him shortly before death. The very words, which appear to have been heard by the dying man, were repeated by Mrs. Piper. And yet none of these arguments are incontrovertible. Every one of the evidential cases might be explained as an elaboration by the creative imagination of Mrs. Piper's telepathically acquired knowledge and by her telepathic faculty working in conjunction with the minds of others - in the instance given with that of the dying man. Without the hypothesis of telepathy, all attempts at explanation are abortive. And in addition to the telepathic perception of the immediate actual mental processes of those present at the séance we have also to assume that the medium could read thoughts which were latent. When Mrs. Piper informs Professor James that he has just killed a cat with ether, there is a possibility that he might have given a casual thought to this fact at that precise moment. When, on the other hand, she gives him information about distant relatives or a dead child the above theory appears improbable. It must therefore be assumed that she was herself able to reproduce even mere latent memories of those present.

A special difficulty arises in those cases where Mrs. Piper made correct statements in contradiction of the thought of the person who was apparently the telepathic source of her information, that person making a mistake. This applies to the case where Mrs. Piper indicated the correct sex of the child, while James was wrong. If, however, the origin of her assertions is to be found in James's memory, it must be assumed that there are, so to say, deeper strata of subconsciousness, otherwise her declaration would have agreed with his erroneous opinion. That such deeper strata do exist is proved by the fact that under certain artificially induced conditions it is possible by narrowing the circle of consciousness to improve the memory and correct mistakes. Mrs. Piper's telepathic power seems to have gone direct to such latent memories.

But how is it that Mrs. Piper, when shown an object belonging to a person unknown to all those present, was yet able to give information about it later proved to have been correct? Or when she disclosed matters even unknown to the latent memory to those present at the séance? These psychometric manifestations have so far been considered inexplicable.

In order, however, to attempt to explain them, it has been assumed that all objects are surrounded, so to speak, by a psychic aura or by the "Life-spirit" of their owner. ("Influences.") Either conception, particularly the latter, is quite nebulous. The additional hypothesis deduced from them, that, for instance, it is not right to place articles which were the property of different owners close to each other, as they infect each other and give bad psychometric results, has not been verified. Stanley Hall on one occasion showed Mrs. Piper an object which was not the one originally chosen to be shown to her, but only bore a marked resemblance to the original. She was nevertheless enabled to make correct communications applicable to the owner of the original "real" object; in spite of the fact that it possessed neither "psychic aura," nor was it steeped in "nerve spirit." She had apparently been duped.

Another explanation lies in the assumption that the survival of personality is so limited that only shreds of memory are left in the world, and it is of these shreds that the mediums are able to take advantage. This conception implies an exceedingly strange misconception of the nature of the mind, as indeed of memory in particular, and results in a reversion to the ideas of Herbart. Just as Herbart materialized the individual acts of perception into permanent atoms, so upon this theory acts of memory are regarded as concrete facts: and this, though individual acts of memory, even when repeated with reference to the same object, cannot by any means be considered as identically the same. Furthermore this theory is at fault in assuming that if two different people remember the same event it must be the case of an identical remembrance. On the contrary, there would be two distinct acts of memory, as each person has his own individual memory, even though applied to the same event. If this hypothesis is to be adopted at all, it must be applied consistently and clearly. We shall then need an entirely new foundation for psychological theory. In exact opposition to the monadic conception of the soul, it will be necessary to assume that the psyche, like the body, is also composed of individual parts, capable either of a permanent, independent existence, or at any rate of a continued existence for a certain length of time. These separate parts may find themselves combined at certain times, just as the body is composed of atoms, which, if placed in a different juxtaposition to each other, would produce other bodies. Dismemberment and materialization would not only be true of the memory, but of all other mental phenomena. And the result would be - unless we go on to assume the existence of separate specimens of the same mental phenomenon - that we should have to say that to some degree different individuals are actually constituted from the same parts. For instance, a colour noticed by another person and myself would he actually the same identical perception in both of us. The same thing would apply to an emotion or manifestation of will power. For the theory, if it is right for memory, is right also for all other mental acts, and thus demonstrates its own absurdity.

In my opinion, all psychometric manifestations alike can be traced back to Telepathy, and this I have pointed out in my "Fundamental Notions of Parapsychology." It must be assumed that Mrs. Piper was in unbroken subconscious telepathic nexus with almost everybody, so that much of their actual experiences or memories was telepathically transferred to her, and at her disposal while she was in a trance and able to recall it. If this is so she would, on being shown a watch, remember its owner, to whom certain associations would necessarily be attached, in the same way that we, on receiving a gift, may think of the donor and possibly of his relatives or other common acquaintances. For this reason I should like to suggest the term "Paramnesy" or "Metamnesy" for psychometric phenomena. The supposition that spurious spirits and not Mrs. Piper are responsible for such communications would merely be an explanation created by the imagination, and it is of daily occurrence in modern occultism by reason of traditions and beliefs which are passed on from one medium to another.

That the spiritistic interpretation actually presents difficulties to spiritists themselves has been clearly proved by the recent attempt made to explain Mrs. Piper's trance, not as genuine impersonations, but as founded on a telepathic nexus not only with the living but also with the spirits of those who had passed over and were continuing their existence transcendentally. It is true that it is not possible to refute this any more than the usual spiritistic interpretation; but it is still true that all positive proof of spiritism is unjustified, for whatever the communications may be, by which spirits prove their existence, they must themselves be verified, in order that their validity may be accepted. But verification is only possible when the facts are vouched for by living people or proved by documents. And where this is possible, it is also possible in principle to ascribe the knowledge of the medium to Telepathy or Clairvoyance.

That Mrs. Piper was in possession of telepathic and possibly clairvoyant faculties also seems to be confirmed by various data. On one occasion a sitter was informed by her through a "spirit" that there was a defective place, a crack under a certain window in her (the sitter's) house. Another time it was directly arranged with one of the "spirits" (G. Pelham) that he should observe the doings of a certain person and report at the next séance what had happened in the meantime. This actually was done. The "spirit" reported that the person under observation, who lived far away in Washington, had taken a photograph to an artist on a certain day with a request to paint a portrait from it. This was quite correct. Not even the man's wife was aware of the incident.

There are, however, various positive considerations which militate against the spiritistic character of Mrs. Piper's state of trance. For instance, Dr. Phinuit, who lay claim to being a French doctor at the beginning of the nineteenth century, speaking through her, had no knowledge whatever of the medicines used at that time. Mrs. Piper's most outstanding failure lay, however, in being unable to communicate the contents of a letter, unknown to all who were then alive, left by a stranger who had died. The attempt was twice repeated, to fail in both instances. Once, too, there was the question of a letter left by Hodgson, which he had promised to communicate to his friends if possible after his death, through Mrs. Piper, as proof of his continued existence. Even though Hodgson was apparently impersonated soon afterwards in Mrs. Piper, his attempts to give the contents of the letter proved quite abortive. This led to the conclusion that Mrs. Piper's efforts as a whole were only connected with her telepathic nexus with the living; though possibly this conclusion may go too far. It is only certain, either that she is not in continuous telepathic nexus with everyone, or that her memories are not always entirely within her control, otherwise she would have received telepathic news of this letter during Hodgson's lifetime when it was written, and remembered it later. She was not gifted with equal paramnestic faculties with regard to all the sitters.

These abortive attempts also prove that Mrs. Piper was not always capable of clairvoyance, or she would have been able to decipher the letter by that means. And despite her supernormality there are other errors and gaps in her manifestations. At times, for instance, she gropes in doubt after a name, and occasionally does not get beyond similarities in sound. Thus Gibbons was pronounced as Kiblin, Giblin, and so forth. And the definite impression left is the same as that when we ourselves are half unable to recall a name, a result which is much in favour of the explanation already given in regard to "Psychometry." Half-true, inaccurate, and totally false communications have also been given; as, for example, the wrong date of the delivery of the photograph to the painter in the episode above mentioned. In other cases, it was not possible to establish the exact truth.

But all these inaccuracies, defects and negative results cannot shake the positive material. Its wealth is overwhelming.

So far as I am aware, no one who came into personal contact with Mrs. Piper, or who was concerned in first-hand reports about her, had any doubt as to the supernormal nature of her mind, and her supernormality is as securely established as any historical event. It has been proved scientifically, and there can be no further discussion as to the fact. Most of the investigators fared just as James did. Those who grew up in the atmosphere of the departing nineteenth century necessarily brought scepticism and rationalistic prejudices to bear on the preliminary study of parapsychological problems, but the case of Mrs. Piper could not in spite of all their scepticism be lightly dismissed. In order to be quite certain steps were taken to place her and her relatives under continuous supervision by detectives, and nothing in the least suspicious was ever discovered. She was several times sent to England, to stay as a guest in a private house, in totally strange surroundings. Her luggage, and practically the whole of her limited correspondence - she never wrote more than three letters a week - were examined, with equally fruitless results. What paraphernalia she would have needed had her demonstrations been founded on fraud! She was fully informed, so to speak, on each person who came to her; and not only on the person himself, but also on his friends and relatives, both alive and dead. And as she never knew who was likely to come to her, she should, by rights, have possessed a register or family record of everyone under the sun. Though even the most comprehensive index would have been useless without her supernormal faculties, for she would not only have had to memorize this index in its entirety, but also to identify each visitor, even when, as repeatedly happened, he was introduced to her under an assumed name.

As a matter of fact she only learnt of her peculiar condition through the reports of third parties. She had herself no recollection of her trance. Unlike Hélène Smith, she appears to have had herself no consciousness of a dual personality when she was passing slowly from her normal condition to her trance state.

While Hélène Smith became aware of her abnormal psychic processes through automatic writing and semi-somnambulistic conditions, Mrs. Piper was either in a complete state of impersonation and trance-somnambulism or entirely normal. There was no transition through intermediate stages. Consequently it was only through the testimony of others that she became aware of anything remarkable about herself. She personally was more inclined to the telepathic interpretations than to the spiritistic, and she is the only one of the three great mediums with whom we are concerned who shows definite reserve with regard to spiritism.

Bearing in mind the fanatic devotion evinced by such individuals towards spiritism on the whole, it is decidedly refreshing to come across a medium of such remarkable powers who adopted such a critical attitude:

"My opinion is to-day (1901) as it was eighteen years ago. Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know."

However unusual the interest created in Mrs. Piper's case by the wealth, abundance and, above all, the careful scientific control to which it was so long subjected, her case does not stand alone. She has not only been rivalled by English-speaking mediums, but by Germans also. Tischner reports on them, and the psychologist, Professor Baensch, was repeatedly present at such experiments. In one instance, the latter himself handed the medium, X, a small silver Turkish coin, which could not be felt through its wrapping of tissue paper, and which he carried about with him in his purse together with two fifty-centime pieces, several stamps, a trunk-key, and a ribbon of the Iron Cross. The medium made some striking assertions with reference to these articles and their history. On closer examination of the reports of these experiments we find a jumble of visions and acoustic phenomena (the medium hears a voice saying something to him), and finally we get purely intellectual perception, as, for instance, the declaration "from a strange country, without a doubt." Acoustic phenomena may possibly be explained as an alternative expression of conscious knowledge, though this can surely not be asserted with regard to visual phenomena. The paramnestic theory is also applicable to Tischner's case of B, where the situations remembered were not due to "knowledge," but to sensation of "sight" (not to say of "hearing"). In this case we must assume that the original telepathic perceptions themselves were reproduced, just as we ourselves in some cases remember events, in others, recall an actual concrete sensory picture of them.

We conclude, provisionally, that Mrs. Piper's achievements were confined to her intercourse with the living (including those who passed over while her memorizing powers were still unexhausted). It is, however, most desirable that further research should be undertaken to see if this conclusion is correct. Another medium reported on by Eugene Osty is said to have visualized prehistoric landscapes and catastrophes on being handed a fossilized animal's tooth, and on touching an antique jewel. This same medium described facts of ancient Greece, though here, of course, verification is extraordinarily difficult. Some one was aware that the objects in question were a fossilized tooth and an antique Greek jewel. And there are enough sources, "conscious" and otherwise, on which a medium of some education can draw for descriptions of geological and historical events. It is only if the visions of the medium exceed these limits and disclose facts which have to be verified afterwards that we should be justified in assuming that psychometry differs specifically from an elaborated telepathy as described above. As I have already indicated in detail, it is, however, possible to ascribe all "historical psychometry" to telepathy. It is only necessary to assume the existence of a subconscious telepathic nexus between all, or at least most, of the medially disposed individuals. In this manner the experiences and knowledge of these people would be inherited from generation to generation, and a perfect medium would thus be able to recount the adventures of Rameses the Great or of Alexander. He might become the spiritual witness of the erection of the Pyramids and of the invocation of Jupiter Ammon. History would thus have direct connexion with the past by reawakening in the souls of men the actual traces of past ages through the intermediary of the great mediums. Mat a perspective is opened out by the thought that the day may come when the battle of Marathon or the appearance of Socrates before his judges might be described to us by a person in a trance. We should learn everything: how Greek was pronounced, and how Socrates and Plato conversed together; for the voice and physiognomy of the medium of genius is as malleable as wax.

But how would it be if the medium were capable of still greater efforts, and could describe events of the prehistoric age? If the whole of the past were to be unrolled before us? The thought is too fantastical, but we are not aware of the bounds of psychometry. The possibility must be recognized and investigated. It is obvious that the truth will take long to establish. If the result of the investigation were to establish the theory as fact, it would mean that psychometry cannot be founded (or at any rate not alone) on a telepathic nexus of humanity. Its causes would be deeper and still more wonderful. Either those would be right who are of opinion that all events leave traces on the object under observation, and that these traces produce corresponding thoughts or manifestations in the psychometric medium, or it must be accepted that these mediums get their telepathic knowledge from the memory of God or that of another superhuman spirit (the Earth Soul of Fechner).

Anna Katherina Emmerich, who was canonized by the Catholic Church, was accredited with supernormal faculties, and in her case what appears to be historical paramnesia has been proved with comparative accuracy. The poet Clemens Brentano has collected a good deal of material about her. She left whole cycles of visions about Jesus and Mary, purporting to contain information on archaeological details in Palestine, which were still unknown in her lifetime, but which are said to have been verified lately. Should these assertions really be confirmed - but I confess that I have felt so sceptical about them that I have not even troubled to examine them closer - they would be of the greatest interest for the further development of Parapsychology.


The above article was taken from Konstantin Oesterreich's "Occultism and Modern Science" (London: Methuen & Co., 1923).

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Subconscious Action and Secondary Personality by James Hyslop
Dissociation by W. H. Salter
Trance Personalities by William McDougall
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