Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

Physical Mediumship: Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Séance Room?

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          THE SECOND branch of paranormal phenomena, in which physical effects are alleged to take place, is well known to the public. It has been for ages the happy hunting ground of tricksters and charlatans, and its sordid sensations seem to have struck the imagination of supporters and opponents alike. So much has it monopolised the field of attention that many people regard it as the sole problem with which psychical research is concerned. As a matter of fact, its importance is quite secondary.

One must, however, bear in mind that if these alleged physical phenomena could be abstracted from their associations with "Mr. Sludge" and treated under purely scientific conditions, there is not the slightest reason why they should be laughed at or treated as unimportant. Does an unusual physical state establish itself in the vicinity of a living human body which is in a peculiar psychophysical condition? There is no justification for answering this question in the negative without putting the matter to the test of experiment. It would, indeed, be most unscientific to do so. But this question is bound up with a historical connection with fraud and credulity; therefore people tend to dismiss it out of hand.

Spiritualists make a wider claim for these phenomena. They claim that they (or some of them) are produced by the agency of the dead. Two phenomena in particular are advanced in support of this claim. One is the alleged "materialisation," in whole or in part, of a human body. The other is the "direct voice," in which, it is alleged, a deceased person speaks from some isolated point in space.

Perhaps one point with regard to these claims should be cleared up at the outset. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the entire body of a deceased person we recognisably materialised, or that the voice of a deceased person, coming from a place unoccupied by any human being, was heard and recognised, we should be in exactly the same position with regard to the question whether or not the deceased person were actually responsible for it as we are when the same question arises with regard to mental communications. If it is plausible to suppose that messages purporting to come from the dead, which reproduce their mental characteristics, in reality originate with the medium, it is equally plausible to hold that materialisations or voices, purporting to be those of the dead, even if recognisable, are in reality caused by the medium. An audible voice or a visible form may be more psychologically persuasive than a written message; but logically the two are on a par. From an evidential point of view, the mental phenomena are superior, since a message is permanent while a materialisation is fleeting.

The first problem, however, to be decided is whether any unusual physical events take place in the neighbourhood of, a physical medium. Again, selection of illustrative cases is difficult from the long and unhappy history of this subject.

The Society for Psychical Research has investigated a number of physical mediums, and in all, or nearly all, has discovered fraud; so that the problem resolves itself into discovering whether a modicum of genuine phenomena co-exist with this fraud. There is no particular advantage in selecting a new case; perhaps it is best to go back to the historically famous Italian medium, who was examined by a succession of eminent men in various countries - Eusapia Palladino. During the 1890s, she was examined by Lombroso, Schiaparelli, the astronomer, Richet, the French physiologist, Carl du Prel, Aksakoff, Ochorowicz and others. Some were enthusiastic in her support; others thought her performances entirely due to fraud. She was examined, not only all over the continent, but also in America and in Britain.

In 1908, the Society for Psychical Research appointed a committee of three to examine Eusapia Palladino in Naples. This committee consisted of Mr. Hereward Carrington, investigator for the American Society for Psychical Research and an amateur conjurer; Mr. W. W. Baggally, also an investigator and amateur conjurer of much experience; and the Hon. Everard Feilding, who had had an extensive training as investigator and "a fairly complete education at the hands of fraudulent mediums." The medium was the daughter of an Italian peasant, and quite uneducated, being unable to read or to write more than her own name.

The subject of physical mediumship is well summed up by this investigating committee in the following words: "It is understating the case to say that the vast majority of these modern wizards and witches are the merest charlatans - sometimes, indeed, using mechanical and scientific apparatus of extreme ingenuity, but as a rule relying merely on the simplest devices, with an insolent confidence in the avid simplicity of their dupes. Yet every now and then a personality arises whose claims to something beyond such manifest imposture it has seemed impossible to dismiss thus curtly"(1).

(1) Proceedings SPR., Vol. xxiii, p. 310.

The investigators prepared a room in their hotel at Naples with the usual curtained-off cabinet in the corner, variable electric lights, a small table of toys, etc. They engaged a shorthand writer. A plain deal table, some 3 feet long and 19 inches wide, was placed in front of the cabinet for the sittings. Everything was examined with the greatest care. On the arrival of the medium the door was locked and she was seated at the narrow end of the table with her back to the cabinet, and the back of her chair 18 inches from the curtain. For control, we are told that "one of us sat on each side of her, holding, or held by, her hand, with his foot under her foot, his leg generally pressing against the whole length of hers, often with his free hand across her knees, and very frequently with his two feet encircling her foot." The degree of control allowed varied according to the temper of the medium; but it was noticed that the best phenomena occurred when she was in a good temper and when the control allowed was most stringent. When a poor light was used, with consequently increased opportunities for fraud, there did not appear to be any increase of it. The exact conditions of lighting and control were taken down in shorthand on each occasion, together with the times and a full description of the phenomena. The report is thus somewhat long and tedious.

The chief phenomena consisted of movements or levitations of the table, with and without apparent contact; raps; movements of the curtain; touches by unseen fingertips; noises inside the cabinet (e.g. the string of a guitar inside the cabinet was plucked); bulging of the medium's dress; appearance of gray objects like heads, and of a hand; hand-grasps through the curtain; a cold breeze from the medium's brow; lights; untying of knots. The number of recorded incidents, which were all tabulated, amounted to 470.

One of the medium's commonest tricks, in order to elude control, was to substitute one hand for the other. She would move her hands about and at last succeed in getting the two controllers to hold one hand when they thought they were holding both. This she did with great skill. "The tactile sensation of continuity of contact was unbroken" says the report. With the free hand she could, of course, produce phenomena. The same trick was performed with the feet, and there seems little doubt that on occasion Eusapia got her leg back into the cabinet and moved its contents about. The report on the sittings held at Cambridge in 1895 stated that systematic fraud had been used and that there was no evidence for anything paranormal. A similarly unfavourable report resulted from her sittings in America in 1910. There, two black-clothed figures, introduced by the experimenters, wriggled in along the floor and saw the medium reaching back with the hand and foot and moving things in the cabinet behind her.

The problem of these physical phenomena is thus always the same. There is no doubt of fraud; the question is whether there is anything else. The Palladino committee became convinced that, in spite of the fraud discovered by others and confirmed by themselves, there was a small modicum of effects which could not be explained in any normal manner. "It was only through constant repetition of the same phenomenon," they said, "in a good fight and at moments when its occurrence was expected and after finding that none of the precautions which we took had any influence in impeding it, that we gradually reached the conviction that some force was in play which was beyond the reach of ordinary control and beyond the skill of the most skilful conjurer. But though we have come to that general conclusion, we find it exceedingly difficult to say to which particular phenomena, or even to which particular kind of phenomena, we have sufficiently strict evidence to apply it." Their experience seemed to point to the view that in the majority of sittings nothing remarkable happened - perhaps some genuine raisings of the table or bulgings of the curtain occurred, eked out by fraud. But on rare occasions it seemed to them that striking and genuinely paranormal events really did happen. Only occasionally did the conditions for these appear to be realised. "It needs heaven-sent moments for this skill."

In the conclusion to the report, Mr. Feilding said: "The phenomena, then - in themselves preposterous, futile and lacking in any quality, of the smallest ethical, religious or spiritual value - are nevertheless symptomatic of something which, put at its lowest by choosing the first hypothesis [that no entity beyond the medium is involved] must, as it filters gradually into our common knowledge, most profoundly modify the whole of our philosophy of human faculty; but which, if that hypothesis is found insufficient, may ultimately be judged to require an interpretation involving not only that modification, but a still wider one, namely our knowledge between the relations of mankind and an intelligent sphere external to it."

I am not aware that any case of complete "materialisation," investigated by critical observers, has resulted in a favourable verdict. "Materialisations" consisting of regurgitated cheese-cloth are well-known. Yet one must be wary of jumping to conclusions. The early experiences of Sir William Crookes with D. D. Home were puzzling. Other cases besides that of Eusapia Palladino have suggested a residuum of genuine phenomena. And we must remember the innate tendency we all have to reject the phenomena at the start. Probably nothing in our whole make-up is so delusive as our tendency to be guided by common sense in our estimation of the probable in these matters. There is a definite limit to the field in which the voice of common sense leads towards the truth. If anyone has a theory of the ultimate nature of human personality, or for that matter of the ultimate nature of anything else, which is wholly acceptable to common sense, it is pretty safe to say that that theory is wrong. The underlying truth about most things would probably seem wildly fantastic to us if we knew and could understand it.

The Palladino committee reported that when, on rare occasions, events occurred in spite of their precautions, which they were obliged to regard as genuine, they found that their minds automatically tried to reject them.

One feels inclined to ask why, if there are any genuine phenomena of this kind, they should not stand out clearly. Why should the subject be so riddled with imposture and fraud? One case throws a little light on this question. There was a medium named Anna Burton, who, at the age of thirteen, seems to have been in a similar condition to the girl mentioned in the last chapter, who became the centre of poltergeist phenomena. Raps occurred round Anna Burton while she was asleep. She was taken up and developed by a spiritualist. "None of the investigators," says a reviewer of her case, "none at least of those who had any opportunity for a prolonged examination of the case, have any doubt that, in her normal condition, Miss Burton is perfectly honest, and she has freely submitted herself to every suggested test"(2). The usual phenomena manifested themselves, raps, levitation of the table, movements of bells and tambourines, etc, but no rigid control was imposed. Had it been, this might have checked the tendency to simulate phenomena. The case then came under the observation of two doctors, who proved by flashlight photographs that the medium was using her hands and teeth to produce fraudulent affects. The doctors were satisfied that this was not done by deliberate, conscious fraud, but in a condition of hysteria, which they defined as "Physiological and mental conditions that eliminate or limit normal consciousness." That Anna really did possess a curious faculty was shown by her ability to touch objects in the dark with extreme precision. She removed in the dark a foreign body from the doctor's eye with a delicacy and precision which astonished him. But when she was in this so-called "hysterical" or trance-like condition, she resorted to fraud. The investigators found that she was still honest in her normal state, and that alternations between honesty and fraud depended on the depth of the trance.

(2) Journal SPR, Vol. xv, p. 141.

One can see how fraud may creep into physical mediumship. Mediums may start by being honest; but genuine phenomena are rare, and sitters, especially if they have paid a fee, expect a continuous supply. Even then, the medium may not consciously wish to be fraudulent, but, when she is in a semi-conscious state, the desire to satisfy the sitters overcomes conscious scruples, and simple trickery begins.

This is astonishingly successful owing to the credulity of most sitters and the laxity of their control. It gradually grows, until at last fraud is practised consciously. Then, with a reputation to maintain on which her living depends, the medium cannot afford to dispense with it. There may be a few people who go into the business provided with a knowledge of the art of conjuring, who intend to use nothing but deliberate fraud from the start; but, on the whole. I am inclined to think that the reaction practised by most physical mediums is a kind of defence-reaction used to compensate for the paucity of genuine phenomena and encouraged by the credulity of sitters.

It is, perhaps, relevant to remember that accounts of certain physical phenomena are recorded in the literature of the lives of religious contemplatives. Cases of levitation are reported in records of saints and others living in religious communities. They may not have been recorded with scientific accuracy; but it is pertinent to inquire why, if something of the kind did not occur, such accounts should exist at all. There is no question of any desire for notoriety or gain. Convents and other religious houses did not want these things to happen in their midst. For a saint to be raised from the ground while kneeling in prayer was neither dignified nor desirable yet there are many accounts of such things having happened.

One other point may be briefly dealt with. A long time ago, a view was put forward and discussed(3) according to which the physical phenomena of mediumship, when not due to fraud, were regarded as being due to sensory hallucination. The argument was that the medium has the power, not of producing unusual physical effects, but of creating hallucinations in the minds of the sitters in much the same way as a hypnotist can create hallucinations in the minds of hypnotic subjects. Those who hold this view might quote as additional support certain experiments which were carried out by the Society for Psychical Research to test the reliability of witnesses' accounts of a physical sitting. In a mock-sitting the witnesses' accounts of what had occurred were found to be startlingly different from the facts. This was not due to sensory hallucination but simply to faulty observation and memory. It might be maintained that if a certain amount of sensory hallucination were added to these defects, alleged physical phenomena would be accounted for. But this view has to contend with difficulties.

(3) Proceedings SPR, Vol. xxi, pp. 483-511.

Some of the physical objects seen to be moved during séances are found to remain moved afterwards. There is also much photographic evidence to prove that genuine physical phenomena do occur. The theory would have to maintain that all genuine physical happenings are fraudulent, while those not attributable to fraud are hallucinatory. It is difficult to draw a plausible line between the two classes of events. Nor must we forget Osty's experiments with infra-red rays and an ultra-violet ray camera taking photographs from the roof. According to these the infra-red beam kept on being interrupted when the camera showed that no physical object was interrupting it. It also registered a curious rapid pulsation in time with the medium's breathing(4). Facts like these render the hallucinatory theory untenable, at any rate as a complete explanation.

(4) Revue Metapsychique, 1932.

Sittings for physical phenomena cannot be usefully epitomised in a general book. Everything depends on details, which must be studied in the original accounts. It has been said that, as evidence for communication from the dead, physical phenomena, even, if certainly genuine, would be intellectually less satisfactory than mental phenomena. They might be emotionally more persuasive; but that is another thing. What, then, if true, would these phenomena prove? They would prove that, in the neighbourhood of a living human body in a particular state, the movement of objects and various other physical effects are brought about in some unknown way. Would this involve any radical novelty for science? Might not some invisible matter, of a kind not yet recognised, be exuded from the medium's body and exert the necessary mechanical forces, etc? If this happened, some new physico-physiological process would be involved, but nothing necessarily revolutionary for the fundamental laws of physics.

Perhaps this will turn out to be the solution of these phenomena; for it is difficult to believe that fraud accounts for everything. But we must not hide from ourselves that there may be something deeper. The very much stronger evidence provided by mental phenomena commits us already to things extremely revolutionary for thought. Paranormal phenomena will not fit into a niche in the existing scheme of science. Either, room must be made for them by extending the existing scheme, or the principle of basing our knowledge on observed facts must be rejected. We seem to be faced by no less a possibility than that the scheme of space, time, matter and causality may be only a department of nature and that there may be another order of things behind it, which occasionally shows through. If this is so, a prolonged and stubborn fight against paranormal facts is to be expected, because our mentality is adapted to the space-time-matter-causal scheme and will strenuously resist any evidence which tends to show that it is not universal. The antecedent attitude of the human mind towards the paranormal becomes a factor of the greatest importance - of greater importance, even, than the evidence. Why not, then, go straight to the crux of the matter and investigate this attitude? It is one of the most interesting and important issues that psychical research has raised.

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1
Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
What is Psychical Research?
What is Science?
The Significance of the Whole
The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious
Psychical Research and Religion
The Case of Patience Worth: An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing
Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
Discarnate Agency: More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem
Trance Personalities
Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
The Boundary of the World of Sense
The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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