Eusapia Palladino

Eusapia Palladino

          Signora Raphael Delgaiz by marriage, the first physical medium who stood in the crossfire of collective scientific investigation for more than twenty years all over Europe and in America. It is in large measure due to this strange woman that the reality of physical phenomena and the psychological complex of fraud was, at the close of the last and in the first decade of the 20th century, vividly brought home to an array of brilliant minds.

She was born at Minervo-Murge, near Bari, Italy, on January 21, 1854. Her birth cost her mother's life. Her father was assassinated by brigands in 1866. As a little girl she heard raps on the furniture against which she was leaning, she saw eyes glaring at her in the darkness and was frequently frightened in the night when invisible hands stripped off her bedclothes. When she became orphaned a family of the upper bourgeoisie received her in Naples as a nursemaid. They soon detected that she was not an ordinary girl, but her real discovery and mediumistic education is due to Signor Damiani, a noted Italian psychic investigator. His wife, a British lady, went to a séance in London. John King manifested and spoke about a powerful medium in Naples who was his reincarnated daughter. He gave her address, street and number. Damiani went to the house and found Eusapia Palladino of whom he had never heard before. This was in 1872. The development of Eusapia Palladino's powers progressed at a rapid rate. In the first five or six years she devoted herself mainly to phenomena of movements without contact. Then came the famous spectral appearances, the phantom limbs so often noticed to issue from her body and materialisations of full but incomplete figures.

Her control, John King, communicated through raps and in trance spoke in Italian alone. Eusapia Palladino was always impressed what phenomenon was going to take place and could warn the sitters. She suffered extremely during the process and exhibited a very remarkable synchronism between her gestures and the movement without contact. If she glared defiantly at a table it began to move towards her, if she warned it off it backed away. A forcible motion of her head was accompanied by raps and upward movements of her hand would cause the table to lift in the air.

Another peculiarity of her séances was that any particular phenomenon had to be wished for and incessantly asked. Strong desire on the part of the sitters present always brought about the occurrence.
The first scientist who boldly proclaimed the verity of her extraordinary phenomena was Dr. Ercole Chiaia. His opportunity to invite public attention to Eusapia Palladino came when Cesare Lombroso published an article on The Influence of Civilisation upon Genius and concluded it:

"Twenty or thirty years are enough to make the whole world admire a discovery which was treated as madness at the moment when it was made. Even at the present day academic bodies laugh at hypnotism and homoeopathy. Who knows whether my friends and I, who laugh at Spiritualism, are not in error, just as hypnotised persons are?"

On August 9, 1888 Chiaia addressed an open letter to Lombroso and challenged him to observe a special case, saying:

"The case I allude to is that of an invalid woman who belongs to the humblest class of society. She is nearly thirty years old and very ignorant; her appearance is neither fascinating nor endowed with the power which modern criminologists call irresistible; but when she wishes, be it by day or by night, she can divert a curious group for an hour or so with the most surprising phenomena. Either bound to a seat, or firmly held by the hands of the curious, she attracts to her the articles of furniture which surround her, lifts them up, holds them suspended in the air like Mahomet's coffin, and makes them come down again with undulatory movements, as if they were obeying her will. She increases their height or lessens it according to her pleasure. She raps or taps upon the walls, the ceiling, the floor, with fine rhythm and cadence. In response to the requests of the spectators something like flashes of electricity shoot forth from her body, and envelop her or enwrap the spectators of these marvellous scenes. She draws upon cards that you hold out, everything that you want - figures, signatures, numbers, sentences - by just stretching out her hand towards the indicated place.

"If you place in the corner of the room a vessel containing a layer of soft clay, you find after some moments the imprint in it of a small or a large hand, the image of a face (front view or profile) from which a plaster cast can be taken. In this way portraits of a face at different angles have been preserved, and those who desire so to do can thus make serious and important studies.

"This woman rises in the air, no matter what bands tie her down. She seems to lie upon the empty air, as on a couch, contrary to all the laws of gravity; she plays on musical instruments - organs, bells, tambourines - as if they had been touched by her hands or moved by the breath of invisible gnomes. This woman at times can increase her stature by more than four inches.

"She is like an India rubber doll, like an automaton of a new kind; she takes strange forms. How many legs and arms has she? We do not know. While her limbs are being held by incredulous spectators, we see other limbs coming into view, without her knowing where they come from. Her shoes are too small to fit these witch-feet of hers, and this particular circumstance gives rise to the suspicion of the intervention of mysterious power."

It was not until two years later that Lombroso found time enough to visit Naples for a sitting. His first report states:

"Eusapia's feet and hands were held by Professor Tamburini and by Lombroso. A handbell placed on a small table more than a yard distant from Eusapia sounded in the air above the heads of the sitters and then descended on the table, thence going two yards to a bed. While the bell was ringing we struck a match and saw the bell up in the air."

A detailed account of his observations and reflections appeared in the Annales des Sciences Psychiques in 1892. He admitted the reality of the phenomena and, on the basis of the analogy of the transposition of the senses observed in hypnotic cases, suggested a transformation of the powers of the medium as an explanation. He continued his researches for many years and ended in the acceptance of the spirit theory.
In After Death - What? he gives the following character sketch of his medium:

"Low-cultured, frequently fails in good sense and common sense but has subtlety and intuition of the intellect which make her, in spite of her lack of cultivation, just, and appreciate at their true worth the men of genius whom she meets, without being influenced by prestige or the false stamp of wealth and authority. She is ingenuous to the extent of allowing herself to be imposed on, but sometimes exhibits a slyness that goes as far as deception. Possesses a most keen visual memory to the extent of remembering five to ten mental texts presented to her during three seconds. She is almost illiterate and spells a printed page with difficulty. She has the ability to recall vividly, especially with eyes shut, the outlines of persons precisely. But she is not without morbid characteristics which sometimes extend to streaks of insanity. She passes rapidly from joy to grief, has strange phobias (for example the fear of staining her hands), is extremely impressionable and subject to dreams, in spite of her mature age. Not rarely she has hallucinations, frequently sees her own ghost. As a child she believed two eyes glared at her behind trees and hedges. When she is in anger, especially when her reputation as a medium is insulted, she is so violent and impulsive as actually to fly at her adversaries and beat them. These tendencies are offset by a singular kindness of heart which leads her to lavish her gains upon the poor and protect animals that are being maltreated."

It is interesting to add here the description of M. Arthur Levy in his report on a séance held in Camille Flammarion's house in 1898:

"Two things arrest the attention when you look at her. First, her large eyes, filled with strange fire, sparkle in their orbits, or, again, seem filled with swift gleams of phosphorescent fire, sometimes bluish, sometimes golden. If I did not fear that the metaphor was too easy when it concerns a Neapolitan woman, I should say that her eyes appear like the glowing lava fires of Vesuvius, seen from a distance in a dark night. The other peculiarity is a mouth with strange contours. We do not know whether it expresses amusement, suffering or scorn."

Lombroso made a thorough psychologic study of Eusapia. He wrote:

"Many are the crafty tricks she plays, both in the state of trance (unconsciously) and out of it - for example, freeing one of her two hands, held by the controllers, for the sake of moving objects near her; making touches; slowly lifting the legs of the table by means of one of her knees and one of her feet, and feigning to adjust her hair and then slyly pulling out one hair and putting it over the little balance tray of a letter-weigher in order to lower it. She was seen by Faifofer, before her séances, furtively gathering flowers in a garden, that she might feign them to be 'apports' by availing herself of the shrouding dark of the room."

Similar observations were made by Prof. Enrico Morselli and later investigators. Her penchant to cheat caused Eusapia no end of trouble in her later years.

The sittings in Naples which started Lombroso on his career as a psychical researcher were followed by an investigation in Milan in 1892. Prof. Schiaparelli, Director of the Observatory of Milan, Prof. Gerosa, Dr. G. B. Ermacora, Alexander Aksakof, Dr. Charles du Prel and Prof. Charles Richet were among the members of the Milan Commission. Part of the report, based on a series of 17 sittings, said.

"It is impossible to count the number of times that a hand appeared and was touched by one of us. Suffice it to say that doubt was no longer possible. It was indeed a living human hand which we saw and touched, while at the same time the bust and the arms of the medium remained visible, and her hands were held by those on either side of her."

At the end of the report the conviction was expressed 1. That in the circumstances given, none of the phenomena obtained in more or less intense light could have been produced by the aid of any artifice whatever. 2. That the same opinion may be affirmed in a large measure with regard to the phenomena obtained in complete darkness. For some of them we can well admit, strictly speaking, the possibility of imitating them by means of some adroit artifice on the part of the medium; nevertheless, according to what we have said, it is evident that this hypothesis would be not only improbable, but even useless in the present case, since, even admitting it, the assembly of facts clearly proved would not be invalidated by it."

In the following year a series of séances took place in Naples under direction of Prof. Wagner of the University of St. Petersburg, next in Rome in 1893-94 under the direction of M. de Semiradski, interrupted by a visit to Warsaw where Dr. Julien Ochorowitz made many important experiments. He worked out the hypothesis of a "fluidic double" which, under certain conditions, detaches itself and acts independently of the body of the medium. In 1894 at the house of Prof. Richet on the Be Roubaud, Sir Oliver Lodge and F. W. H. Myers had their first opportunity to witness genuine physical phenomena of an unusual order. Lodge reported to the SPR that as regards the fact of movement without contact there is no further room in his mind for doubt.

Dr. Richard Hodgson, who was then resident in Boston, criticised the report and pointed out that the precautions described did not exclude trickery. He suggested explanations for various phenomena on the theory that Eusapia could get a hand or foot free. Lodge, Myers and Richet each replied. Richet pointed out that he attended fifteen séances with Eusapia in Milan and Rome and held forty at Carquieranne and in the Ile Roubaud over a period of three months under his own supervision. He finished by saying:

"It appears to me that after three months' practice and meditation one can arrive at the certainty of holding well a human hand."

As an outcome of the critical reception of this report Eusapia was invited to Britain. In August and September, 1895, at the house of Myers in Cambridge, twenty sittings were held. Dr. Hodgson came from Boston to be present and J. N. Maskelyne, the conjurer, was also invited. The sitters' attitude was not so much to prevent fraud as to detect it. Dr. Hodgson intentionally left Eusapia's hand free. She was given every opportunity to cheat and she availed herself of this generosity. In communicating the findings of the Cambridge investigation to the SPR, Myers, who on the Isle of Roubaud was convinced of having witnessed supernormal phenomena, stated:

"I cannot doubt that we observed much conscious and deliberate fraud, of a kind which must have needed long practice to bring it to its present level of skill. Nor can I find any excuse for her fraud (assuming that such excuse would be valid) in the attitude of mind of the persons, several of them distinguished in the world of science, who assisted in this inquiry. Their attitude was a fair and open one; in all cases they showed patience, and in several cases the impression first made on their minds was distinctly favourable. With growing experience, however, and careful observation of the precise conditions permitted or refused to us, the existence of some fraud became clear; and fraud was attempted when the tests were as good as we were allowed to make them, quite as indisputably as on the few occasions when our holding was intentionally left inadequate in order to trace more exactly the modus operandi. Moreover, the fraud occurred both in the medium's waking state and during her real or alleged trance. I do not think there is adequate reason to suppose that any of the phenomena at Cambridge were genuine."

In the very month of the exposure a new series of experiments was made at I'Agnelas, in the residence of Col. Rochas, president of the Polytechnic School, Dr. Dariex, editor of the Annales des Sciences Psychiques, Count de Gramont, Dr. Joseph Maxwell, Prof. Sabatier and Baron de Watteville participated. They all attested that the phenomena produced were genuine. On the result of the observations Col de Rochas built up his theory of "Externalisation of motricity."

The Cambridge report was not well received by psychical researchers.

Sir Oliver Lodge only attended two of the sittings and declared that he failed to see any resemblance between the phenomena there produced and those witnessed on the Ile Roubaud. He stated that his belief in what he there observed remained unshaken.

Dr. Ochorowitz remarked that Eusapia frequently released her hand for no other reason than to touch her head which was in pain at the moment of the manifestations. It was a natural reflex movement and a fixed habit. Immediately before the mediumistic doubling of her personality her hand was affected with hyperaesthesia and, consequently, the pressure of the hand of another made her ill, especially in the dorsal quarter. The medium acted by auto-suggestion and the order to go as far as an indicated point was given by her brain simultaneously to the dynamic hand and the corporeal hand, since in the normal state they form only one. It sometimes happened that the dynamic hand remained in place, while her own hand went in the indicated direction. Dr. Ochorowitz concludes that:

"not only was conscious fraud not proved on Eusapia at Cambridge, but not the slightest effort was made to do so. Unconscious fraud was proved in much larger proportion than in all the preceding experiments. This negative result is vindicated by a blundering method little in accordance with the nature of the phenomena."

"I cannot help thinking," writes Maxwell in his Metapsychical Phenomena, "that the Cambridge experimenters were either ill-guided, or ill-favoured, for I have obtained raps with Eusapia Palladino in full light, I have obtained them with many other mediums, and it is a minimum phenomenon which they could have and ought to have obtained, had they experimented in a proper manner."

"The Italian medium, Eusapia Palladino," writes Miss Goodrich Freer in Essays in Psychical Research (1899), "may have been a fraud of the deepest dye for anything I know to the contrary, but she never had a fair chance in England. Even her cheating seems to have been badly done. The atmosphere was inimical; the poor thing was paralysed."

It appears plainly from the Journal of the SPR that the dynamic hands of which Ochorowitz speaks created a strong presumption against Eusapia. The paper said:

"It is hardly necessary to remark that the continuity of the spirit limbs with the body of the medium is, prima facie, a circumstance strongly suggestive of fraud."

The reality of these phantom limbs was later sufficiently proved. Also the fact that Eusapia would resort to fraud whenever allowed to had gained a wider recognition. Flammarion threw an interesting light on the problem in saying:

"She is frequently ill on the following day, sometimes even on the second day following, and is incapable of taking any nourishment without immediately vomiting. One can readily conceive, then, that when she is able to perform certain wonders without any expenditure of force and merely by a more or less skilful piece of deception, she prefers the second procedure to the first. It does not exhaust her at all, and may even amuse her. Let me remark, in the next place, that, during these experiments, she is generally in a half-awake condition which is somewhat similar to the hypnotic or somnambulistic sleep. Her fixed idea is to produce phenomena; and she produces them, no matter how."

On December 1, 1898, a séance was arranged in Prof. Richet's library in Paris for the purpose of assisting Eusapia to regain her reputation. The séance took place in good light, her wrists and ankles were held by the sitters and before each experience she warned the sitters what she was going to do in order that they might establish the phenomenon to the best of their faculties and observation. She did not cease to admonish Myers to pay the closest attention and to remember exactly afterwards what had happened.

"Under these conditions," writes Prof. Theodore Flournoy, "I saw phenomena which I then believed, and still believe, to be certainly inexplicable by any known laws of physics and physiology."

When Myers was solemnly adjured by Prof. Richet to state his view he avowed his renewed belief in the supernormal character of Eusapia's mediumship. Many other distinguished converts were made as the years rolled by Prof. Lombroso finally adopted the spirit hypothesis and Flammarion became firmly convinced of the reality of Eusapia's phenomena. In 1901 Genoa was the scene of important experiments in the presence of Enrico Morselli, Professor of Psychology at the University of Genoa and the astronomer Porro, director of the observatories of Genoa, Turin and later La Plata in the Argentine. Much instrumental investigation was carried on by Doctors Herdlitzka, Charles Fob and Aggazotti, assistants of Professor Mosso, the distinguished physiologist, in Turin and by Professor Philippe Bottazzi, Director of the Physiological Institute at the University of Naples, with the assistance of six other professors.

The Institut General Psychologique of Paris carried on extensive experiments in 43 sittings from 1905-07. M. and Mme. Curie were among the investigators. Fraud and genuine phenomena were observed in a strange mixture. The report drawn up by Courtier admits that movements seem to be produced by simple contact with the medium's hands, or even without contact, that such movements were registered by automatic recording instruments which rules out the hypothesis of collective hallucination and that molecular vibrations in external objects at a distance can be positively asserted. They explained the fraud by suggesting that Eusapia was growing old and that she was strongly tempted not to disappoint her clients when genuine power failed. On the whole the phenomena were much less striking and abundant as the years passed. They theorised that Eusapia influenced the ether in some way. On one or two occasions she succeeded in discharging an electroscope without anybody being able to find out how it was done.

In consequence of this report and under the effect of a growing number of testimonies to the genuine powers of Eusapia the Council of the SPR reconsidered its attitude and delegated in 1908 a committee of three very capable and sceptical investigators; Mr. W. W. Baggally, a practical conjurer, Dr. Hereward Carrington, an amateur conjurer whose book, The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism, is the standard authority on fraudulent performances and the Hon. Everard Feilding, who also brought many a fraudulent medium to grief. They held eleven sittings in November and December in a room of a member of the committee at the Hotel Victoria in Naples. At the end they admitted that the phenomena were genuine and inexplicable by fraud. Their report was published as Part LIX. of the Proceedings, SPR, and even Frank Podmore, the most hardened sceptic feels compelled to say:

"Here, for the first time perhaps in the history of modern spiritualism, we seem to find the issue put fairly and squarely before us. It is difficult for any man who reads the Committee's report to dismiss the whole business as mere vulgar cheating."

Nevertheless, Podmore tries his best. It is sufficient, however, against any outside criticism to quote the opinion of the Hon. Everard Feilding as expressed after the sixth séance:

"For the first time I have absolute conviction that our observation is not mistaken. I realise as an appreciable fact in life that, from an empty curtain, I have seen hands and heads come forth, and that behind the empty curtain I have been seized by living fingers, the existence and position of the nails of which were perceptible. I have seen this extraordinary woman, sitting outside the curtain, held hand and foot, visible to myself, by my colleagues, immobile, except for the occasional straining of a limb while some entity within the curtain has over and over again pressed my hand in a position clearly beyond her reach. I refuse to entertain the possibility of a doubt that it could be anything else, and, remembering my own belief of a very short time ago, I shall not be able to complain, though I shall unquestionably be annoyed when I find that to be the case."

By this verdict the standing of Eusapia Palladino was enormously enhanced, and not without reason. "There have perhaps never been," writes Prof. Richet, "so many different, sceptical and scrupulous investigators into the work of any medium or more minute investigations. During twenty years, from 1888 to 1908, she submitted, at the hands of the most skilled European and American experimentalists, to tests of the most rigorous and decisive kind, and during all this time men of science, resolved not to be deceived, have verified that even very large and massive objects were displaced without contact."

In discussing materialisations he adds:

"More than thirty very sceptical scientific men were convinced, after long testing, that there proceeded from her body material forms having the appearances of life."

The most extraordinary séance recorded with Eusapia is probably the one described in full detail by Prof. Morselli in Psicologia e Spiritismo (Vol. II, pp. 214-237). The séance was held in Genoa on March 1st, 1902. Besides Morselli, Ernesto Bozzano, Dr. Venzano and six other persons were present. The cabinet was examined by Morselli. He himself tied the medium to a camp bed in a manner defying attempts at liberation. In fairly good light six phantoms presented themselves in succession in front of the cabinet, the last one being a woman with a baby in her arms. Each time, after the phantom retired, Morselli rushed into the cabinet and found the medium tied as he left her. No doubt was left in Morselli's mind of the genuineness of the phenomenon, yet his materialistic attitude remained unshaken.

Still one final blow was in store for Eusapia. Owing to the success of the Naples sittings, the story of which is ably told in Carrington's Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena, she was invited, in 1909, to visit America. She landed in New York on November 10, 1909, and left on June 18, 1910. Her first twenty séances were comparatively good ones. In the later sittings at Columbia University and at the house of Prof. Lord she was caught in the use of her old bag of tricks. The Press made a tremendous sensation of the exposure.

The authenticity of the published account, however, is questioned by Carrington. It said that at a sitting held on December 18, a young man crept under the cover of darkness into the cabinet and during the movement of a small table, while Prof. Munsterberg was controlling the left foot of Eusapia, he grabbed a human foot, unshod, by the instep. It proved to be Eusapia's foot pulled out of the shoe. Later she was watched from a concealed window in the cabinet and from a bureau provided with a secret peephole. She was seen to achieve the desired effect by gradual substitution, making one foot do duty for two as regards the control of her limbs, and acting freely with the liberated foot.

It has not been emphasised that Eusapia, at this stage, was so apprehensive of her investigators that she did not allow herself to go into trance for fear that an injury might be done to her. The psychological attitude of her sitters is reflected by the following statement of Eusapia to a newspaper man:

"Some people are at the table who expect tricks - in fact they want them. I am in a trance. Nothing happens. They get impatient. They think of the tricks - nothing but tricks. They put their minds on the tricks and I automatically respond. But it is not often. They merely will me to do them. That is all."

Carrington contends that far from having been exposed in America, as the public imagined, Eusapia presented a large number of striking phenomena which have never been explained and that only a certain number of her classical and customary tricks were detected, which every investigator of this medium's phenomena had known to exist and had warned other investigators against for the past twenty years. No new form of trickery was discovered and against the old and well-known methods Carrington warned the sitters in a circular letter in advance. This is why the American exposure did not influence the European investigators in the least.

When her power was strong the phenomena began almost at once. When it was weak, long waiting was necessary. It was on such occasions that she was tempted to cheat. She did this so often that, as Carrington states:

"practically every scientific committee detected her in attempted fraud, but every one of these committees emerged from their investigations quite convinced of the reality of these phenomena, except the Cambridge and American investigation which ended in exposure."

Nevertheless, Eusapia did not depart from America without making one interesting convert. Howard Thurston, the famous magician, declared:

"I witnessed in person the table levitations of Madame Eusapia Palladino ... and am thoroughly convinced that the phenomena I saw were not due to fraud and were not performed by the aid of her feet, knees, or hands."

He also offered to give a thousand dollars to a charitable institution if it could be proved that Eusapia could not levitate a table without trickery.

Writing of the Naples and of the American investigation, Carrington sums up his views in The Story of Psychic Science:

"To sum up the effects of these séances upon my own mind, I may say that, after seeing nearly forty of her séances, there remains not a shadow of doubt in my mind as to the reality of the vast majority of this phenomena occurring in Eusapia Palladino's presence ... I can but record the fact that further study of this medium has convinced me more than ever that our Naples experiments and deductions were correct, that we were not deceived but that we did, in very truth, see praeternormal manifestations of a remarkable character. I am as assured of the reality of Eusapia Palladino's phenomena as I am of any other fact in life; and they are, to my mind, just as well established."
Mme. Paole Carrara, the daughter of Prof. Lombroso, published a biography of Eusapia in 1907.

A complete bibliography of Eusapia is to be found in Prof. Morselli's Psicologia e spiritismo, Turin, 1908. To mention some important books and reports: Hereward Carrington: Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena; Col. Albert de Rochas: I'Exteriorisation de la Motricite; G. D. Fontenay: A Propos d'Eusapia Palladino, Paris, 1898; Camille Flammarion: Mysterious Psychic Forces, 1907; Cesar Lombroso: After Death - What? 1909; Report of the General Psychological Institute Paris Journal SPR, Vol. VI and VII, Proceedings SPR, Vol. XXIII and XXV; Bottazzi: Nelle Regioni inesplorate della Biologia Umana, 1904; Luigi Barzini: Mondo dei Misteri, 1907.

Source (with minor modifications): An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).



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