J. G. Pratt

J Gaither Pratt

Brought to prominence in 1958 through his investigation of the Seaford case. Originally trained for the ministry, but in his first year of graduate study at Duke University he began to do research work with Professor William McDougall and his young colleague, Dr Joseph Rhine. Except for a brief period at Columbia and three years in the Navy during World War II, Dr Pratt was responsible for some of the most exciting experiments at Duke University.

Does Mind Survive Death?

- J G Pratt -

          IN 1885, William James, professor of psychology at Harvard University, heard from his wife's mother and sister that they had gone out of curiosity, one after the other, to visit a spiritualist medium in Boston. They said that the medium, Mrs. Leonore Piper, had given them names and detailed personal facts regarding deceased members of their family. This information convinced them that she had some unexplained, remarkable way of knowing such things.

Even though James argued with his in-laws that their experience with Mrs. Piper probably had a normal explanation, this did not stop him from going with his wife a short time later to visit the medium. Their experience likewise was very impressive. In spite of the pains taken not to let Mrs. Piper know who was coming for the "sitting" and the care exercised not to give any clues after they arrived, Mrs. Piper, in her trance state, gave them names and descriptions of several deceased relatives. The information was so exact as to leave no doubt in the minds of the two visitors that the medium, when she went into a trance state and then wrote automatically to answer questions or even to volunteer information, was accurately identifying members of their families. As was usually the case with the spiritualistic mediums of the day, the information was worded as if it was coming from a "spirit control" who appeared to take over Mrs. Piper's faculties during her trance. The so-called control claimed to be relaying information from deceased loved ones and occasionally seemed to be able to help the relative or friend on the other side to communicate directly.

Later James summed up his opinion of Mrs. Piper's abilities as follows:

My impression after this first visit was that Mrs. P. 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.

Being of a truly scientific mind and recognizing the importance of the view of the matter which he had reluctantly come to hold, James did not let the case of Mrs. Piper rest there. Instead, he brought her to the attention of the members of the recently formed Society for Psychical Research in England and took an active part in arranging to have her visit them for the purpose of making further, more formal investigations of her mediumistic trance results. Thus began in full earnest, four years after the founding of the SPR, the scientific study of the phenomena of spiritualism.

The spiritualistic movement, indeed, had from the start of the SPR appeared to the members of the society to deserve scientific attention. The religious cult had become widespread during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and the founders of the SPR, in the spirit of keeping their minds open to all possible psi effects, had set up a committee for the investigation of spiritualistic phenomena. The popular interest in these matters undoubtedly helped to set the stage for the scientific efforts that were to loom so large over the next few decades. The study of mediumship came, in fact, to dominate the work of the Society for Psychical Research. There is a time and tide in research as well as in the other affairs of men. This was well illustrated by the fact that, following the discovery of Mrs. Piper, other professional mediums were soon found who were willing to lend themselves for the purposes of serious study.

As a result there was no lack of opportunity to push these investigations as far as the research workers might wish and were able to carry them. There even emerged, before the end of the century, a group of "self-made" or "self-discovered" sensitives (the scientific term for mediums) within the membership of the SPR itself. More and more, the investigators came to feel that they had found a rich vein of ore from which the psi yield seemed to be very high and which, unlike the experimental tests they had already tried, had unlimited reserves. There seemed to be no reason to fear that the best sensitives would lose their powers as the subjects in telepathy experiments were found to do.

But the attraction to the investigation of mediumship was not merely a practical one. The information coming out of the sittings held promise of leading to discoveries of the greatest importance from the point of view of the major objective of the SPR: that of pursuing by the methods of objective research the investigation of those factors in man that most sharply challenge interpretation in terms of physical law. If, as appeared on the surface, the mediums were really serving as channels through which deceased loved ones were communicating with those they had left behind, then there must be something about man's personality that is capable of surviving death. This something could not be physical in terms of physics as we know it today and as we are able to conceive of its becoming. Proof of survival would therefore constitute final proof of the existence of psi and mind. This was the important scientific bearing that the investigators of the survival question thought of their work as having.

Furthermore, if the evidence of life after death should be established beyond any point of doubt, this scientific discovery was seen as a tremendous advance in philosophical and religious thought. Survival, which had so long been a belief to be taken on religious faith, would become a universal truth and ethic.

(There are scientists today, some even in parapsychology, who consider that it is improper to raise this question as one for serious research consideration. For example, an esteemed scientific colleague with whom I discussed our field in my visit to the new laboratory for the investigation of ESP at the University of Leningrad has recently expressed such an opinion. In an English language review of one of his books dealing with parapsychology he is quoted as suggesting that research interest in the question of survival will delay the acceptance of psi as a legitimate branch of research. I respect his right to his opinion, as I hope he respects my right to mine, which is that science, and particularly parapsychology, cannot afford to exclude any meaningful question about the universe as being out of bounds for research. There is always the risk that questions may be raised before it is possible to deal with them effectively. Or it is possible that the research worker raising a particular question may be mistaken in thinking that it is a meaningful one. But in either case the most that should be charged against the venturesome researcher is that he might have found a better use of his time. This can scarcely be said regarding anyone who undertakes research on the survival problem. If a positive answer to the question were found, it would obviously be of overpowering importance. And even if in the end the answer were a negative one that runs counter to most religious beliefs, the achievement of sound scientific knowledge to this effect is better than ignorance.)

The amount of serious thought and work already invested by scientists on the survival question is enough to compel us to consider what has been done on this problem. And until we reach the stage of having a scientific solution one way or the other, the survival question is most definitely one that must be pursued. While the present facts do not add up to a final answer, they advance us toward one. What are the methods that have been followed thus far, what are the results, and what prospects can we now see for our ever knowing whether mind survives death?

The serious discussions that have been published on this general topic add up to thousands of pages, but I'm going to try to cover it in a short chapter. Since the largest amount of effort has gone into the study of mediumship, it is appropriate to consider first the kinds of evidence which such studies have yielded and the tentative conclusions to which the investigators were led. After that I will discuss other kinds of experience that raise the question and strongly suggest, if taken at face value, that personality does continue beyond death. Then we must give some thought to how the status of this problem has changed over the past thirty years. Does the progress that has been made during this period in the laboratory studies of the psi capacities of the living bring the answer to the survival question any closer or make it more remote?

From the beginning the investigators recognized that the first question was whether the trance material received through a medium contained real information, and not just lucky guesses. Deciding this issue appeared to most of the workers to be the easiest part of their task, since it seemed to them that many of the names and detailed descriptions of personal circumstances were too unmistakably accurate to attribute the results to chance coincidence. We have already seen how William James quickly was won over to this point of view. Most of the leading members of the SPR followed him in this judgment as they worked with Mrs. Piper and other mediums who became available over the next few decades.

But granting that the mediums were providing accurate information to which they did not have access through normal sensory means, from what source were they getting it? Was it coming from the surviving minds of the deceased loved ones as the spiritualistic interpretation would hold and as the records from the sittings themselves represented to be the case? Or was the source some living mind from which the information was received by the medium through telepathy and simply dramatized to make it seem to be coming "from the other side?" The investigators recognized that it would be necessary to exclude the possibility of telepathy from the living before they could reach any positive conclusion regarding survival. But they did not feel that it was necessary to worry about the possibilities that mediums might get their information through clairvoyance or precognition, because they did not take these forms of ESP very seriously.

A major controversy over whether telepathy from the living or survival was the interpretation of the results soon sprang up among those who agreed that the mediums had some unusual way of revealing facts that they could not have known through their senses. Some investigators were, not surprisingly, inclined to accept the ability of mediums to give obscure but detailed personal data as proof of contact with surviving personalities. Others said that as long as it seemed even remotely possible to credit the success to telepathy from the living, scientific logic required the acceptance of this explanation couched in terms of a known principle.

Then a new development took place in the investigation of mediumship, an advance which had the appearance of being planned for the purpose of making it more difficult to attribute the results to telepathy from the living. Among those who were most deeply immersed in the first years of survival research in the SPR were some outstanding classical scholars, such as F. W. H. Myers and A. W. Verrall. This fact is important in relation to a change in the kind of evidence found in some of the sittings after Myers' death in 1901. Not only did what purported to be communications from Myers start coming through different mediums, but these soon took the form of references to obscure items of information drawn from the classics. This information was beyond the education and normal knowledge of mediums like Mrs. Piper. In most instances it was beyond the understanding of the sitters and note takers as well. Only after the records were studied by living classical scholars were the "messages" recognized.

These sittings were discovered to have produced what seemed to be deliberately contrived classical puzzles which were interpreted as especially strong evidence of survival. It is easy to understand the reason why it was difficult for the investigators to take seriously the alternative interpretation of telepathy from the living, for from what living person's mind could the information be coming? (Not from the mind of any disinterested living scholar, because telepathy, they thought, involved a need on the part of the sender to communicate as well as a suitable person to receive the message.) What was more natural than that Myers and Sidgwick, both of whom had died recently, and other classical scholars who were members of the SPR and who died a few years later, should continue to be interested in proving that the personality survives death - if they had discovered at first hand that it is indeed true? And what better way of serving this worthy cause than to design experiments from the other side which would point forcefully to their own surviving minds as the most likely source of the information coming through the medium?

The evidence conveyed in these classical literary puzzles reached an advanced stage. Those who were slaving over the analysis and interpretation of the records discovered what they named the "cross-correspondences." A part of the literary puzzle was found in the record of one medium, such as that of a sitting held in America with Mrs. Piper, and other parts of the puzzle came through one or more other mediums who were in England or India. The mediums were not in touch with one another in any ordinary sense. The evidence, said the scholars who had the responsibility of studying the records, indicated that some mind or minds that were steeped in the classics had deliberately devised this scheme to prove that the results could not be due to telepathy on the part of one medium. The plan and the initiative for the experiment, it seemed, had to be found elsewhere, and who could have managed it if not the deceased scholars who were claiming the credit and offering the feat as proof of their continued existence after death?

This material is extremely complicated, and great ingenuity was required in making the analyses and interpreting the findings. Few people could claim, even at the time, that they were equal to making an adequate appraisal of the results. But the people who found the evidence in the records and reported it were, themselves, first-rate scholars whose integrity was beyond question. They gained a lot of support for their interpretations among people who were capable of assimilating the findings and who took the trouble to do so. Yet it seems that Dr. Thouless was generally correct when he said, many years after this type of evidence had ceased to accumulate, that the cross-correspondences suffered from the experimental defect of being too complicated! Science requires experiments that are simple and straightforward and easily interpretable, especially in research that is aimed at advancing knowledge beyond what is perhaps its most impenetrable frontier.

The developments we have traced thus far in the methods of studying mediumship were largely unplanned and opportunistic. That is, the investigators simply took advantage of the phenomena that were presented to them and only imposed upon them their skill as observers and their judgment in the interpretation of the results. Even the beginnings of what could properly be called an experiment as represented by the cross-correspondences were not planned by the SPR research workers - at least, not consciously so. (Later there was a suggestion that Mrs. A. W. Verrall, one of the mediums who had some knowledge of the classics, might unconsciously have been the instigator of the scheme.) Two further developments which simply showed up in the mediumistic records also had the appearance of having been initiated "from the other side." These were book tests and newspaper tests.

The book tests were for the purpose of providing simple and direct evidence of a sort that could not be attributed to telepathy from the living. The person who claimed to be communicating through the medium would attempt to prove that the information was coming from himself rather than by telepathy from some living person's mind by referring the sitter to a page in a particular book. The sitter was told that on the designated page he would find information that would give convincing evidence that the communicator speaking through the medium was real and not merely a fantasy of the trance state bolstered by telepathic powers. For example, the personality that appeared to be communicating might prompt the medium's "control" (the trance personality acting as his go-between and interpreter during the sitting) to say: "He says if you will look in the fifth book from the left on the top shelf of his bookcase, on page 172 you will find a description that applies to his condition toward the end of his life." The reference, when it is later looked up, might be found to contain a description of the final stages of the unusual illness from which the communicator had died. Chronologically, this type of evidence followed upon the cross-correspondences. It began in the teens and appeared prominently in mediumistic records from then until the early thirties. It did not, of course, eliminate the possibility of clairvoyance, but at that time this did not seem like a serious shortcoming.

In a similar way the newspaper tests were introduced during the same period. The medium would refer the sitter to a particular page and column of the next day's newspaper for some significant information. The objective here was to introduce still stronger safeguards against an explanation in terms of the ordinary ESP powers that the medium might possess. The newspaper "message" referred to was not only not in anybody's mind at the time, but it was not even physically in existence. Thus both telepathy and clairvoyance were excluded. This left, of course, the possibility of precognition; but these tests were in vogue before the time when precognition was taken seriously as a kind of ESP that the medium might use. The newspaper tests would certainly not any longer be regarded as adequate to exclude what Professor H. H. Price of Oxford University termed the "This-World-ESP" hypothesis of mediumistic results.

It appears that the more we have learned about the psi capacities of the living the more difficult it has become to get evidence that would point unambiguously to some surviving mind as the source. One bold effort to get around this difficulty was made by Mr. Whately Carington in England in the mid-thirties. He applied a personality test to the medium in her normal state and in the trance state in the hope of finding out whether the control personality was a distinct personal entity, as it claimed to be.

Mr. Carington used a word-association test. He read out slowly a special list of words, and he measured with a stop watch how long it took the medium or the control to answer to each word presented with the first word that flashed into mind. Because each person's life is made up of a unique combination of experiences, words come to have a special significance for every individual. The famous psychologist, the late C. G. Jung, showed years ago that each person will show a characteristic pattern of reaction times in the kind of test described. However, in Mr. Carington's application the test did not make any clear distinction between the medium and her control; in fact in the case of two out of three mediums studied the evidence tended to show that the normal and trance personalities were related in the sense that they were opposites. This finding suggested that the medium, in her trance state, was revealing a different side of her own personality from that which was present in her normal state. If we accept this interpretation, the results do not weaken the force of the evidence for survival from the other studies of mediumship. All we can say is that Mr. Carington was not successful in strengthening the case.

In general, however, we may question whether the personality test applied was sufficiently precise to provide the psychic equivalent of a fingerprint by which a personality could be positively identified. The investigation was an ingenious one, and Mr. Carington deserves credit for having thought of it and tried it out. The results from the third medium did seem to point to an independence between the normal waking self and the trance personality. But the results were only enough to keep the question open. The effort spent in the investigation was a great one extending over three years, and Mr. Carington was discouraged from doing any further work along similar lines. So far, no one else has shown any interest in attempting to improve and extend his approach, but the course of research is largely unpredictable, and this work could yet inspire efforts along similar lines and bear fruit. If science is ever to make a definite contribution to the age-old question of the destiny of man beyond death, the search for productive methods must go on, and no one should say that Carington's work was one approach that need not have been explored.

Another new kind of test for survival was one proposed by Dr. Thouless in 1948. As background, I should mention that it had been a fairly common practice among members of the SPR to leave a sealed message in the care of the society. The member who prepared such a message intended to keep its contents secret during his lifetime and to try to communicate what it was after his death as evidence of his continued existence. Dr. Thouless observed that this type of test suffered from two basic defects. In the first place, a medium might learn the contents of the scaled message directly by clairvoyance instead of getting the information from the surviving mind of the person who prepared the test. In the second place, each such scaled message was good for only one trial. Once a message received through a medium seemed impressive enough to justify opening the packet, that was the only time the test could be used. That one time would be enough, of course, if the medium's identification of the sealed message proved to be accurate; but if it did not, there was no way that the test could be repeated. Finally, it was difficult to evaluate the results since it was not easy to decide how much credit to give for a description of the scaled message that was only partially correct.

Dr. Thouless' method also involves preparing a message which he will attempt to reveal after his death. Instead of sealing the message in an opaque packet, however, he has concealed it in what he considers to be an unbreakable code, and the message has actually been published in this encoded form. The point of doing this was to challenge investigators to attempt to break the code with the aid of mediums while Dr. Thouless was still alive, when he had no intention of helping them to do so!

After his death, Dr. Thouless, in case he finds himself surviving with the necessary command of his memory and other faculties, will try to communicate through a medium the key needed to break the code. He will not need to give the message itself, but only the key by which the message can be read. Any number of false keys that mediums may offer will be easily recognized as such because they will not make any sense of the encoded message and thus they will obviously not be the one that Dr. Thouless intends to give. Thus failures before his death strengthen the test (inasmuch as they help to show that mediums did not have access to the key by ordinary ESP); and even repeated failures after his death will not spoil it. The test will remain intact as long as investigators and mediums wish to try to get the correct answer.

Again, the idea is novel and ingenious. There are differences of opinion among parapsychologists regarding just how relevant the results would be as evidence for survival even if the code is successfully broken and the message is revealed. It is easy to think of reasons why a positive result could not be considered as conclusive proof of survival. Mediums are generally strongly committed to a belief that the personality lives on after the death of the body, so it is conceivable that one of them might try to support this belief by unconsciously receiving the key from Dr. Thouless by telepathy while he is still alive and not revealing it until after his death so as to give the impression that the test had succeeded. Or someone might succeed in breaking the code normally by working at it with enough patience and skill and then offer the key after Dr. Thouless' death as if it had been obtained through a medium, or even as if he himself had got it from Dr. Thouless in a dream. Nor can we exclude the possibility that the medium might get the key from Dr. Thouless after his death, not from his surviving mind, but from his mind as it existed while he was still alive. Even though he does not want anyone to get the key from him while he is still living and this may prevent them from doing so, may his intention to reveal it after his death not make his present memory of the key available then even though his mind does not survive?

This last-mentioned method would be by ordinary ESP of the kind that parapsychologists refer to as retrocognition. It would be ESP working backward through time, as precognition is ESP working forward through time. We do not say much about retrocognition because no one has been able to think of a way that it can be experimentally tested to exclude other forms of ESP. But this is not to say that it can be overlooked as a possible alternative interpretation to survival for a successful outcome of Dr. Thouless' test.

But to recognize the shortcomings of a new method is not to say that it has no value. In the face of a problem that involves so much of the unknown, scientists may only be able to grope their way forward by many faltering steps before they achieve a method that clearly marks the way in which they should advance with bold strides.

Still another line of work pursued in the investigation of mediumship has been concerned with developing better methods of evaluation of the kind of verbal material typically obtained in a sitting. To get an idea of the kinds of practical questions that had to be recognized and overcome in achieving an adequate method of objective evaluation, we cannot do better than cite a section from a typical mediumistic record. This I will do after explaining the situation leading up to the holding of the sitting.

In 1926, Mrs. John F. Thomas of Detroit died. Mr. Thomas' bereavement was so great that a friend urged him to go to a medium. He did so, and the results were so impressive that he decided to continue. In April 1927, when Mr. Thomas went with a stenographer, Mrs. Muriel Hankey, to a sitting with the English medium, Mrs. Osborne Leonard, the message coming through (presumably from his wife) urged him to get in touch with Professor McDougall to arrange for the continuation of his research into mediumship under university auspices. This was the beginning of the steps that led to Mr. Thomas' enrolling in his fifties as a graduate student in psychology at Duke University.

The sitting from which the following section of the record is quoted took place later, in April 1930. Mrs. Hankey was alone with Mrs. Leonard on that occasion, and the medium was not told in advance for whom the sitting was to be held. It lasted from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., and the verbatim stenographic record filled several pages. As usual, it was concerned with personal statements given by Feda, the entity that represented itself as a little girl who had once lived on earth and that regularly took charge during the trance as Mrs. Leonard's "control." The statements made by Feda were offered as if they were coming from the person who wanted to communicate, in this instance, presumably, Mrs. Thomas.

When Mr. Thomas received the record in America, he broke it down into separate points and marked these as correct, incorrect, inconclusive, and unverifiable for his own circumstances. The record from the particular sitting in question seemed to be largely concerned with a house where the Thomases had lived, and one part of it contained the following statements: "The cupboard wasn't in the middle of the room, you know, like in the middle of the wall, like you put a thing like a wardrobe. It was rather in a corner of the room, because I see her walking along the wall till she came to like the corner. Were they in a room then - I am feeling a room and I feel that directly you open the door of a room you are on steps. It is very funny. You see, you don't often get steps right out of a room, but I feel steps going right up to the door of this room. This is a room they were very happy in, too, and I feel also one part of this place you would be awfully careful in hitting your head. Buddy used to hit his head. Buddy used to knock his head against something that seemed to be rather low. I think he did it more than once because I get a feeling of him saying, 'Oh, juppity-juppity-juppity,' as if to say, 'I have done it again."'

This particular passage Mr. Thomas broke down into eight items of information, all of which he found to be true for himself. The question is: What value does his analysis have as evidence? May not Mr. Thomas simply have been overly eager to find in the material evidence that his wife was still surviving? Or might not descriptions of this sort be so general that anyone could find ways of fitting the statements to his own personal circumstances or reasons for not doing so, according to whether his personal inclination was toward or against the acceptance of the possibility of mediumistic communications?

Mr. Thomas, in his own research, attempted to deal with such questions by submitting typical items from his large collection of material to other men who were of his age and of the same general status in life. Then the number of items which he had judged to be correct for his personal circumstances was compared statistically with the average number that the members of this similar group marked as correct for themselves. Mr. Thomas' level of accuracy was so much higher that there was no question but that something more than chance was involved. Was this something extra which he found in the records, in fitting them to himself, really to be credited to the powers of the mediums, or could it still be explained as a failure of his method of evaluation to eliminate subjective errors of judgment?

This work was deemed worthy of a Ph.D., and Duke University awarded Dr. Thomas this degree in June 1933. The general conclusion he reached in his research, however, was only that the records involved ESP. No claim was made that the source of this information was the surviving mind of Mrs. Thomas.

Even so, the method Dr. Thomas used for the evaluation of the material in his thesis left one important question unanswered which might reasonably be raised as relevant for his limited, ESP conclusion. How could one be sure that he was not excessively generous in marking the material because he knew that the mediums had produced the statements in sittings which he arranged in the hope of getting communications from his wife? Since he did his work it has become standard procedure in such research not to let the sitters know when they are marking material intended for them. This is accomplished by having several people take part in the investigation, but none of them are allowed to be present in the room with the medium when she is in trance and producing the records. The accounts received are identified by code numbers and the material is itemized and prepared for marking. Each participant scores all of the material, his own as well as that of all of the others, without knowing which is which. Each person thus must give or withhold credit for each item of information on the basis of what the medium actually said. In this way no one's judgment can be influenced by his wish either to believe or to disbelieve.

Once the records have been marked in this objective manner, statistical tests are applied to see whether, on the average, the participants gave more credit for accuracy to their own records than to those belonging to the others which they also had to score. Unfortunately, by the time we had come to appreciate what was required for an adequate evaluation of the verbal material of mediumship, the emphasis in parapsychological research had swung away from this particular line of study. However, at the present time we appear to be witnessing a renewal of interest in the survival question. Whether this will bring us back to an emphasis upon working with mediums or whether it will make use of other avenues described in this chapter or still others yet to be discovered remains to be seen.

If we have given considerable attention to the investigations of mediumship, this is only as it should be in view of the relatively large place that this problem occupies in the history of parapsychology. But we need to remember that the phenomena associated with the trance state of the medium are, after all, only the products of one particular category of unusual experiences. May there not be other states of mind which are shared by a larger number of people which would occasionally give rise to experiences bearing upon the question of whether the mind survives death? Assuming that our loved ones survive and that they remain interested in affairs on earth and would like to communicate with those they have left behind, may there not be, at least occasionally, times when this could be done without a medium? We have already seen in this book how psi experiences occur spontaneously and fairly frequently in everyday life. Do these sometimes appear to involve communications from someone "on the other side" who might have a special need to send back a message?

All the years of collecting spontaneous psi cases have yielded many instances in which a communication from a deceased individual appeared to be involved. When we begin critically to examine such cases, however, to see whether an explanation is possible solely in terms of the psi capacities of the living, we find few which will stand up against this interpretation. But we should not be interested solely in whether there is, at the present time, any conclusive proof of survival. Rather, we may ask how forcefully the question is raised by the best evidence that is available. We must consider evidence even if it falls short of being conclusive. Examining the better evidence for what it is worth, the investigator must decide whether the situation justifies any hope of an ultimate solution if it is pursued further. Considered in this light, the following cases from non-mediumistic sources are valuable parts of the present picture.

In January 1888 a man living in St. Louis wrote to the American Society for Psychical Research as follows:

... In 1867 my only sister, a young lady of eighteen years, died suddenly of cholera in St. Louis, Mo. My attachment for her was very strong, and the blow a severe one to me. A year or so after her death the writer became a commercial traveller, and it was in 1876, while on one of my Western trips, that the event occurred. I had "drummed" the city of St. Joseph, Mo., and had gone to my room at the Pacific House to send in my orders, which were unusually large ones, so that I was in a very happy frame of mind indeed. My thoughts, of course, were about these orders, knowing how pleased my house would be at my success. I had not been thinking of my late sister, or in any manner reflecting on the past. The hour was high noon, and the sun was shining cheerfully into my room. While busily smoking a cigar and writing out my orders, I suddenly became conscious that someone was sitting on my left, with one arm resting on the table. Quick as a flash I turned and distinctly saw the form of my dead sister, and for a brief second or so looked her squarely in the face; and so sure was I that it was she, that I sprang forward in delight, calling her by name, and, as I did so, the apparition instantly vanished. Naturally I was startled and dumbfounded, almost doubting my senses; but the cigar in my mouth, and pen in hand, with the ink still moist on my letter, satisfied myself I had not been dreaming and was wide awake. I was near enough to touch her, had it been a physical possibility, and noted her features, expression, and details of dress, etc. She appeared as if alive. Her eyes looked kindly and perfectly natural into mine. Her skin was so life-like that I could see the glow of moisture on its surface, and, on the whole, there was no change in her appearance, otherwise than when alive.

Now comes the most remarkable confirmation of my statement, which cannot be doubted by those who know what I state actually occurred. This visitation, or whatever you may call it, so impressed me that I took the next train home, and in the presence of my parents and others I related what had occurred. My father, a man of rare good sense and very practical, was inclined to ridicule me, as he saw how earnestly I believed what I stated; but he, too, was amazed when later on I told them of a bright red line or scratch on the right-hand side of my sister's face, which I distinctly had seen. When I mentioned this my mother rose trembling to her feet and nearly fainted away, and as soon as she sufficiently recovered her self-possession, with tears streaming down her face, she exclaimed that I had indeed seen my sister, as no living mortal but herself was aware of that scratch, which she had accidentally made while doing some little act of kindness after my sister's death. She said she well remembered how pained she was to think she should have, unintentionally, marred the features of her dead daughter, and that unknown to all, how she had carefully obliterated all traces of the slight scratch with the aid of powder, etc., and that she had never mentioned it to a human being from that day to this. In proof, neither my father nor any of our family had detected it, and positively were unaware of the incident, yet I saw the scratch as bright as if just made. So strangely impressed was my mother, that even after she had retired to rest she got up and dressed, came to me and told me she knew at least that I had seen my sister. A few weeks later my mother died, happy in her belief she would rejoin her favorite daughter in a better world.

The above letter and other correspondence and discussion bearing upon the case were published in the Journal of the SPR in London. The writer of the letter was identified in the printed account only as Mr. F. G., but Dr. Richard Hodgson, an experienced professional investigator of psi phenomena, visited him in St. Louis and found that the account stood up under close questioning. Dr. F. W. H. Myers, in a commentary on the case, pointed out the obvious interpretation that the sister's appearance represented her awareness of her mother's approaching death and that it was a means of getting her brother to return home before their mother died. Dr. Myers was compelled, however, to point out that Dr. Podmore, another member of the SPR, thought that the apparition seen by Mr. F. G. could have been only a projection from the mother's mind.

Today, we would have to consider that far-reaching psi capacities have to be recognized as a part of the normal endowment of the living. These ESP and PK abilities make it all the more difficult for us to feel full confidence in the interpretation that the sister's surviving mind was the source of her apparitional appearance. Granting, as we must, that lifelike hallucinations do occasionally occur, and granting also that the brother could have supplied all of the details involved in his experience from memory and from his own ESP, we could dismiss the case as of no interest from the point of view of the survival problem. Yes, we could; but if we are going to take a truly scientific position we need not and we should not dismiss it. Rather, we should keep it in mind for what it may be worth, along with all the related material we can find, that might help us to plan and carry through further research on the problem of survival. These thoughts also apply to the following account from the literature of psychical research, the Chaffin Will Case.

James L. Chaffin, a farmer in Davie County, North Carolina, had four sons. In 1905 he made a will, formally witnessed and signed, in which he left his farm to his third son, Marshall. No provision was made for the other members of his family.

In 1921 Mr. Chaffin suffered a fatal fall.

In June 1925 the second son, James P. Chaffin, began to have vivid dreams in which he saw his father standing at his bedside. The events that followed are best described in this son's own words as given in a sworn statement that was taken down by Mr. Johnson, a lawyer and a member of the SPR who visited the family in 1927 to interview them about their unusual experience.

In all my life I never heard my father mention having made a later will than the one dated in 1905. I think it was in June of 1925 that I began to have very vivid dreams that my father appeared to me at my bedside but made no verbal communication. Some time later, I think it was the latter part of June, 1925, he appeared at my bedside again, dressed as I had often seen him dressed in life, wearing a black overcoat which I knew to be his own coat. This time my father's spirit spoke to me, he took hold of his overcoat this way and pulled it back and said, "You will find my will in my overcoat pocket" and then disappeared. The next morning I arose fully convinced that my father's spirit had visited me for the purpose of explaining some mistake. I went to mother's and sought for the overcoat but found that it was gone. Mother stated that she had given the overcoat to my brother John who lives in Yadkin County about twenty miles northwest of my home. I think it was on the 6th of July, which was on Monday following the events stated in the last paragraph, I went to my brother's home in Yadkin County and found the coat. On examination of the inside pocket I found that the lining had been sewed together. I immediately cut the stitches and found a little roll of paper tied with a string which was in my father's handwriting and contained only the following words: "Read the 27th chapter of Genesis in my daddie's old Bible."

At this point I was so convinced that the mystery was to be cleared up I was unwilling to go to mother's home to examine the old Bible without the presence of a witness and I induced a neighbor, Mr. Thos. Blackwelder, to accompany me, also my daughter and Mr. Blackwelder's daughter were present. Arriving at mother's home we had a considerable search before we found the old Bible. At last we did find it in the top drawer in an upstairs room. The book was so dilapidated that when we took it out it fell into three pieces. Mr. Blackwelder picked up the portion containing the Book of Genesis and turned the leaves until he came to the 27th chapter of Genesis and there we found two leaves folded together, the left hand page folded to the right and the right hand page folded to the left forming a pocket and in this pocket Mr. Blackwelder found the will...

The paper that they found was in the father's handwriting and it read as follows:

After reading the 27th chapter of Genesis, I, James L. Chaffin, do make my last will and testament, and here it is. I want, after giving my body a decent burial, my little property to 'be equally divided between my four children, if they are living at my death, both personal and real estate divided equal if not living, give share to their children. And if she is living, you all must take care of your mammy. Now this is my last will and testament. Witness my hand and seal. James L. Chaffin, This January 16, 1919.

The twenty-seventh chapter of Genesis recounts how Jacob, the younger brother, supplanted Esau in winning his birthright.

A holographic will is legally valid under the laws of the state of North Carolina.

By the time the second will was found, the son who had inherited the farm under the former one had died and the property had passed to his widow and minor son. The other three sons brought a suit against them to recover their share of the estate. A number of witnesses were prepared to swear that the second will was written entirely in James L. Chaffin's handwriting. On the day of the trial, when the court recessed for lunch after the selection and swearing of the jury, the widow of Marshall Chaffin and her son were shown the second will for the first time. They immediately admitted that the document had been prepared by the father, and they withdrew their objections to having it certified by the court as his valid will.

So much for the essential facts. Now what can we make of them?

A good discussion of the case is given in connection with a review of it which appeared in the Proceedings of the SPR in November 1927. There the possibility of an outright fraud, such as would be required for the faking and planting of the second will, is considered. This seemed then, and still seems, a remote possibility. Not only were a number of people, including those who stood to lose heavily financially by so doing, prepared to say that the second will was genuine. Even if by some clever manipulation the will itself could have been forged, it is scarcely conceivable that such a complicated way would have been devised to bring it to light. It would have been sufficient simply to hide the will in the old Bible and then manage to "find" it at the right time. The paper sewed in the old coat and the fantastic series of dreams were not only not of any help; they only introduced a strange element into the proceedings which might have queered the whole game.

Beyond the question of outright fraud, however, what are the possibilities of interpretation? The most obvious one is that the second son, James P. Chaffin, had somehow learned from his father about the second will and that he had forgotten about it until the memory was dramatized in dream form and thus brought back into consciousness. On this point the discussion in the SPR Proceedings is so good that it should be quoted:

Mr. Johnson in his statement suggests, only to dismiss, another possible explanation. "I endeavoured with all my skill and ability by cross-examination and otherwise to induce some admission that possibly there was a subconscious knowledge of the Will in the Old Bible, or of the paper in the coat pocket, that was brought to the fore by the dream: but I utterly failed to shake their faith. The answer was a quiet: 'Nay: such an explanation is impossible. We never heard of the existence of the will till the visitation from my father's spirit."' Clearly, they none of them had any conscious recollection, at the date of the Testator's death, of any mention of a second will, or they would not have allowed the first will to be proved without opposition. Nor was it a matter which, if once mentioned, they were likely to forget, during the short period which intervened between the making of the second will (January, 1919) and the Testator's death (September, 1921). The hypothesis therefore of the "exterioralization" in the form of a vision, of knowledge normally acquired by Mr. J. P. Chaffin, but only remembered subconsciously, is open to grave objection.

We may, I think, at least say that the dream of James P. Chaffin involved ESP, inasmuch as it apparently brought him knowledge about the second will that he could not reasonably be supposed to have obtained through his senses. (Observe that even this conservative conclusion is stated with caution. One could not say that this evidence, if it stood alone, would be sufficient to establish ESP as a scientific fact. But given the vast amount of evidence for ESP from experiments and other sources, it is proper to consider this case as another example of the use of psi abilities.) Can we go further and say that the source of the ESP knowledge obtained in the dream was the surviving mind or the troubled conscience of the father? Here we come once more to the crucial issue, and once more we must frankly admit that we cannot give a clear affirmative answer.

On the face of the matter, the experience looks like an instance in which the father returned in the son's dreams for the purpose of righting a wrong to his family. But where a question of such momentous importance is at issue, we dare not claim an affirmative answer until there is no alternative explanation. The will was there, all the while, in the Bible; and the paper giving the clue was in existence in the lining of the old coat. If we assume that the son was concerned with the matter of the injustice of his father's earlier will, he had sufficient reason to want to discover the later document which would set things right. It is not difficult, therefore, to suppose that ordinary ESP (clairvoyance) could have detected the existence of the paper in the father's coat.

We are once again faced with the dilemma from which there is, so far, no way of escape. If we recognize that an individual has access to information beyond his senses through his psi capacities, we simply cannot say conclusively that we have a genuine instance of communication from the surviving consciousness of a deceased person simply because the information appeared to come from that source. Beyond a doubt, this is one of those times when, scientifically speaking, we have no choice but to suspend judgment and go on working.

What direction should further work on the problem take? In part, this question can better be appreciated if we look more closely at the way in which the status of the survival question has changed over the past thirty years.

When Dr. and Mrs. Rhine first decided to enter the field of parapsychology in 1926, both public and scientific interest in survival research was at a high pitch. Resigning their positions as instructors in botany at the University of West Virginia, they went to Boston to spend a year at Harvard and with Dr. Walter Franklin Prince of the Boston Society for Psychic Research. The medium, Margery, was then in her heyday in that city, and the Rhines went to one of her séances. Afterward they made a statement based upon their observations that was unfavorable to her claims, and they found themselves suddenly propelled into the limelight of bitter controversy and big headlines. Thus these two pioneers who had been attracted to psychical research primarily by their interest in the survival question served notice that they were going to adhere to high standards of evidence in their research and let the chips fall where they would.

After the interim year at Harvard the Rhines came to Durham, North Carolina, on a private appointment from Mr. Thomas to assist him in getting his mediumistic material in shape for his Ph.D. thesis. It is interesting to notice in passing that his thesis was submitted twice. The first time, in 1932, Mr. Thomas offered his work as a contribution to knowledge because of the evidence provided for survival. His committee rejected the work as not justifying such a strong position on that problem. The following year, when Mr. Thomas submitted his work the second time, it was accepted; but he had, as we have already seen, toned down his conclusions to evidence for ESP obtained through a number of trance mediums.

When Dr. Rhine plunged into his experiments on ESP in the early thirties, he thought of his work as primarily doing the necessary groundwork for coming back later in a more crucial way to research on the survival problem. He had decided that it would not be possible to come to grips with the survival question until more was known about psi in the living. As things turned out, this pursuit of more knowledge about psi has turned out to be a much longer-drawn-out job than anyone could have foreseen at the time. In the first place, as the work has grown the findings have proliferated and ramified and raised new questions to a much greater extent than could have been predicted at the start. In the second place, the task of learning what we need to know about psi in the living has proved to be much more difficult than anyone could have anticipated in 1930.

As Dr. Rhine himself has repeatedly pointed out, the work on ESP and PK react upon the research on the survival problem in two ways. First, it makes it harder to conceive of the kind of evidence that would be required to provide a conclusive answer to the question. Secondly and conversely, the more we learn about the range and variety of what the normal person is capable of doing through the use of his psi capacities, the more we come to appreciate the existence in man of precisely those qualities that make the concept of survival acceptable as a theoretical possibility. So it is a matter of the survival hypothesis facing difficulties either way: without evidence for psi in the living, we would have no sure knowledge that there is anything about man that could survive death; with psi in the living, we can conceive of survival but it becomes more difficult to know how to prove that any seeming evidence for it is not merely a dramatization of psi information to suggest communication from the dead.

In the face of this situation, there are two distinct ways in which the research worker in parapsychology might react toward the survival question. He might take the conservative approach and suggest that we leave it alone until we know as much as we can find out about psi in living organisms. This would amount to putting the question on the table for the indefinite future. Or he might say that there is much that can he done about the survival problem right now, and that investigators who have the opportunity and feel so inclined should devote their efforts to this question. There are, of course, an infinite variety of positions intermediate between these two extremes.

The voice of reason and wisdom would appear to say that no one view should prevail. We need to keep in mind the overpowering fact that the great all-encompassing objective of parapsychology is the discovery of the nature of mind wherever it is to be found in the universe. Our major concern may rightly be said to be the nature, place, and destiny of the personality of the normal, living human being. But the mention of destiny leads us inevitably to a concern about what happens to man's mind at the moment of death. We would do well to consider that this question, with which man has felt deep concern during all the centuries since at least the beginning of recorded history, is not likely to prove to have been only an idle query. Rather, it is one that deserves whatever amount of scientific attention may be required to find the true answer - an answer so clear that it will be universally recognized and accepted as established knowledge. From such research all men stand to gain; from its neglect, only those will benefit who have a vested interest in protecting their own personal and intellectual commitments against having the floodlights of scientific inquiry illuminate this area where the present obscurity only marks the existence of an uneasy truce between the dread of the hereafter and the solace of faith.


The article above was taken from J G Pratt's "Parapsychology: An Insider's View of ESP" (1964, Doubleday & Co, Inc).

More articles by J. G. Pratt

The Seaford Poltergeist
Psychokinesis in the Laboratory

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