OF BOSTON, the foremost trance medium in the history of psychical research, to whom is due the conversion of Sir
Oliver Lodge, Dr. Richard
Hodgson, Prof. James Hyslop and many other intellects to a belief in survival and communication with the dead.
When eight years old playing in the garden, "suddenly she felt a sharp blow on her right ear, accompanied by a prolonged sibilant sound. This gradually resolved itself into the letter S. which was then followed by the words
"Aunt Sara, not dead, but with you still." The child was terrified. Her mother made a note of the day and the time. Several days later it was found that Aunt Sara had died at the very hour on the very day. A few weeks later she cried out at night that she could not sleep because of
"the bright light in the room and all the faces in
it," and because of the bed that "won't stop rocking." Discounting occasional experiences of this kind, her childhood was normal. At 22 years of age she married William Piper of Boston. Soon after this she went to consult Dr. J. R. Cocke, a blind professional clairvoyant who was attracting considerable attention by his medical diagnoses and cures.
She fell into a short trance. At the second visit to the clairvoyant's circle, held for effecting cures and developing latent mediumship, when Dr. Cocke put his hand on her head, she saw in front of her "a flood of light in which many strange faces appeared." In trance she rose from her chair, walked to a table in the centre of the room, picked up a pencil and paper, wrote rapidly for a few minutes, and handing the written paper to a member of the circle she returned to her seat. The particular member was Judge Frost, of Cambridge, a noted jurist; the message, the most remarkable he ever received, came from his dead son. The report of Judge Frost's experience spread and Mrs. Piper was soon besieged for sittings. She was not at all pleased by this sudden notoriety and apart from members of her family and intimate friends she refused to see anyone. However, when Mrs. Gibbins, Prof.
William James' mother-in-law applied for a sitting (she heard of the strange things through servant gossip) for some inexplicable reason her request was granted. Her own, and subsequently her daughter's experience, the marvellous story which they brought back induced Prof. James to play the esprit fort before his family. But his impression of supernormal powers
on the part of the medium was so strong that he not only continued sittings, but for the next eighteen months virtually controlled all sťance arrangements. Referring mainly to this first period of his experiences he wrote in 1890 in
SPR Proceedings, Vol. VI.;
"And I repeat again what I said before, that, taking everything that I know of Mrs. Piper into account, the result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state, and that the definite philosophy of her trances is yet to be found."
When Prof. James began his experiments, a
soi disant French doctor, Phinuit, was in exclusive control of the sittings from the other side. He appears to have been inherited from Dr. Cocke. He was known there as Finne or Finnett. His manifestation was not immediate. The first control of Mrs. Piper was an Indian girl of the strange name: Chlorine. Commodore Vanderbilt, Longfellow, Lorette Penchini, J. Sebastian Bach and Mrs. Siddons, the actress, were next encountered with as communicators. Phinuit had a deep gruff voice, in striking contrast with the voice of the medium. His exclusive regime lasted from 1884-1892 when "George Pelham," a friend of Dr. Hodgson, who died in an accident, appeared and manifested in automatic writing. The trance speaking was left for Dr. Phinuit and the control, speaking and writing, was often simultaneous. In 1897 the Imperator group took charge of the sťance proceedings. Phinuit disappeared and Pelham became relegated to the role of a minor communicator. While Phinuit had much difficulty in keeping back other would-be communicators, the advent of the Imperator group of controls made the communications freer from interruptions and from the admixture of apparently foreign elements. They excluded "inferior" intelligences, whom they speak of as "earth-bound" spirits, from the use of the light. Under the new regime the communications assumed a dignity and loftiness of expression, as well as a quasi-religious character, which they had heretofore entirely lacked. Moreover, the passing in and out of the trance state which in the earlier stages had been attended with a certain amount of difficulty and discomfort, now, under the new conditions, became quiet and peaceful. Prof. William James called special attention to the point that the Imperator group of controls not only exhibited characteristic personalities, but they could divine the most secret thoughts of the sitters. As a lasting influence of this regime in later years Mrs. Piper showed remarkable development as spiritual adviser in her waking state.
"It is almost," writes Alta L. Piper in 1929, "as if, since the trance state has been less and less resorted to, the cloak of Rector has fallen upon Mrs. Piper herself, and the good that she has been able to do along these lines, during the past nine or ten years, is almost unbelievable."
Mrs. Piper did not exhibit physical phenomena, except one single manifestation: she could withdraw the scent from flowers and make them wither in a short time. To establish rapport with her spirit communicators she utilised psychometric influences, usually asking for an object which was about the person of the departed. Prof. James succeeded in hypnotising her and found the conditions of the hypnotic and medium-trance entirely different. He found no signs of thought-transference either in the hypnotic condition or immediately after it. Of the earliest trances there is no contemporary record. When, owing to other duties, Prof. James relinquished direct control of the Piper sťances he wrote to various members of the
SPR of the puzzling and remarkable facts of the mediumship. It was the result of these representations that Dr. Richard Hodgson arrived in America for the express purpose of continuing the investigation on behalf of the
With his advent there began the most famous period of Mrs. Piper's mediumship. Dr. Hodgson was the keenest fraud-hunter, the most pronounced sceptic and he took every precaution to bar the possibility of deception. For some time Dr. Hodgson engaged the services of a detective to follow Mrs. Piper and watch possible attempts to obtain information normally. On the first three days of the week, when sittings were given, Dr. Hodgson forbade her to see a morning newspaper. He arranged the sittings without communicating the name of the sitter to Mrs. Piper. The sitters were in most cases unknown to her and were introduced under the pseudonym "Smith." The sittings were often improvised for the benefit of chance callers of whose very existence Mrs. Piper could not have been aware. She was usually weakest precisely where the pseudo medium is most successful. She was vague about dates, preferred to give Christian names to surnames and mostly concentrated on the description of diseases, personal idiosyncrasies and character of the sitters. She fished out significant and trivial details from their past of which a fraudulent medium could least have got hold of. On the other hand, she often failed to answer test questions. The spirit of Hannah Wild manifesting through her could not describe the contents of the sealed letter which she wrote before her death and the names which
Stainton Moses gave as the names of his earthly guides were in each case incorrect.
The hypothesis of fraud has been discussed in its every aspect by Dr. Hodgson, Professor William James, Prof. Newbold, of Pennsylvania University, Dr. Walter Leaf and Sir Oliver Lodge. In 1898 Prof. James wrote in the
"Dr. Hodgson considers that the hypothesis of fraud cannot be seriously maintained. I agree with him absolutely. The medium has been under observation, much of the time under close observation, as to most of the conditions of her life, by a large number of persons, eager, many of them, to pounce upon any suspicious circumstance for (nearly) fifteen years.
"During that time not only has there not been one single suspicious circumstance remarked, but not one suggestion has ever been made from any quarter which might tend positively to explain how the medium, living the apparent life she leads, could possibly collect information about so many sitters by natural means. The scientist who is confident of 'fraud' here must remember that in science as much as in common life a hypothesis must receive some positive specification and determination before it can be profitably discussed, and a fraud which is no assigned kind of fraud, but simply 'fraud' at large, fraud
in abstracto, can hardly be regarded as a specially scientific explanation of concrete facts."
He added, at a later period:
"Practically I should be willing now to stake as much money on Mrs. Piper's honesty as on that of anyone I know, and I am quite satisfied to leave my reputation for wisdom or folly, so far as human nature is concerned, to stand or fall by this declaration."
In 1888-89 Prof. Hyslop joined the investigation. On the first two or three occasions he took the extraordinary precaution of putting on a mask before he got out of the cab, removing it only after Mrs. Piper was entranced, and resumed it before she awoke. Twelve sittings were sufficient to convince him of the untenability of the secondary personality hypothesis. He declared, without hesitation, that:
"I prefer to believe that I have been talking to my dead relatives in person; it is simpler."
His first report was published in
Proc. SPR, Vol. XVI. and concluded:
"I give my adhesion to the theory that there is a future life and persistence of personal
In unabated zeal, Dr. Hodgson was seeking for still more stringent precautions and experiments and conceived the idea of removing Mrs. Piper from her normal surroundings and placing her in a foreign country among strangers. This is how Mrs. Piper's first visit to
Britain came about. She arrived in November, 1889. She was met at the station by Prof. (Sir Oliver) Lodge and escorted next day to Cambridge by Myers at whose house she stayed.
"I am convinced," says Myers, "that she brought with her a very slender knowledge of English affairs and English people. The servant who attended on her and on her two children was chosen by myself, and was a young woman from a country village, whom I had full reason to believe to be trustworthy and also quite ignorant of my own or my friend's affairs. For the most part I had myself not determined upon the persons whom I would invite to sit with her. I chose these sitters in great measure by chance; several of them were not residents of Cambridge; and except in one or two cases where anonymity would have been hard to preserve, I brought them to her under false names - sometimes introducing them only when the trance had already begun."
Mrs. Piper gave, under the supervision of Myers, Lodge and Dr. Walter Leaf, eighty-eight sittings between November, 1889, and February, 1890. Wherever she stayed in
Britain her movements were planned and arranged for her and even when shopping she was accompanied by some member of the
SPR. Lodge even exceeded Myers in caution. Prior to her stay in Liverpool his wife engaged an entire new staff of servants. Lodge safely locked away the family Bible and, throughout the duration of her stay, all of Mrs. Piper's correspondence passed through Sir Oliver Lodge's hands who had permission to read it in almost every instance.
In his first sitting his father, "Uncle William" and "Aunt Ann" and a child of his who died very young, were described. There were some flaws in the descriptions which were later rectified. Many personal and intimate details of their lives were given. In subsequent sittings the names of the dead relatives were communicated in full and supernormal knowledge of the history of the whole family was generally exhibited. Sir Oliver Lodge's report was published in 1890 with an introduction by F. W. H. Myers, who concluded:
1. That many of the facts given could not have been learnt even by a skilled detective.
2. That to learn others of them, although possible, would have needed an expenditure of money as well as of time which it seems impossible to suppose that Mrs. Piper could have met.
3. That her conduct has never given any ground whatever for supposing her capable of fraud or trickery.
Few persons have been so long and so carefully observed; and she has left on all observers the impression of thorough uprightness, candour and honesty. The second part of the report was contributed by Dr. Walter Leaf. A letter from Prof. William James was appended in conclusion.
Sir Oliver Lodge enumerates thirty-eight cases in which information, not within the conscious knowledge of the sitter, was given. In only five instances did the sitter acknowledge that the facts were at one time known to him. Considering the extraordinary familiarity of Phinuit with the boyhood days of two of his uncles Lodge was curious how much of this knowledge might be obtained by normal means. He sent a professional inquiry agent to the scene for the purpose of making full and exhaustive inquiries.
"Mrs. Piper" wrote the agent "has certainly beat me. My inquiries in modern Barking yield less information than she gave. Yet the most skilful agent could have done no more than secure the assistance of the local record keepers and the oldest inhabitants living."
In his summary Lodge states:
"By introducing anonymous strangers and by catechising her myself in various ways, I have satisfied myself that much of the information she possesses in the trance state is not acquired by ordinary common-place methods, but that she has some unusual means of acquiring information. The facts on which she discourses are usually within the knowledge of some person present, though they are often entirely out of his conscious thought at the time. Occasionally facts have been narrated which have only been verified afterwards, and which are in good faith asserted never to have been known; meaning thereby that they have left no trace on the conscious memory of any person present or in the neighbourhood and that it is highly improbable that they were ever known to such persons. She is also in the trance state able to diagnose diseases and to specify the owners or late owners of portable property, under circumstances which preclude the application of ordinary methods."
Further he says:
"That there is more than can be explained by any amount of either conscious or unconscious
fraud - that the phenomenon is a genuine one, however it is to be explained - I now regard as absolutely certain; and I make the following two statements with the utmost confidence:
1. That Mrs. Piper's attitude is not one of deception.
2. No conceivable deception on the part of Mrs. Piper can explain the facts."
After Mrs. Piper's return to America Dr. Hodgson took charge again. His first report was published in 1892 in Vol. VIII of the
SPR Proceedings. In an excess of caution he refused to consider, on the available evidence, the acceptance of the spirit hypothesis as justified. Yet his inner self was wavering. He was torn with doubts. But not for long. In 1892 a notable evolution was witnessed in the Piper phenomena in the quality of trance communications by the development of automatic writing and by the advent of Pelham as control.
Hodgson's second report, which appeared in SPR Proceedings, Vol. XIII, in 1897, ended with the adoption of the spirit hypothesis. His statement was very firm:
"I cannot profess to have any doubt but that the 'chief communicators '... are veritably the personalities that they claim to be; that they have survived the change we call death, and that they have directly communicated with us whom we call living through Mrs. Piper's entranced organism. Having tried the hypothesis of telepathy from the living for several years, and the 'spirit' hypothesis also for several years, I have no hesitation in affirming with the most absolute assurance that the 'spirit' hypothesis is justified by its fruits and the other hypothesis is not."
It is interesting to quote here the following note from Alta L. Piper's biography of her mother:
"During the latter years of his investigation I more than once heard Dr. Hodgson say, ruefully, that his
amour propre had never quite recovered from the shock it received when he found himself forced to accept unreservedly the genuineness of the so-called
A third report which Dr. Hodgson intended to publish was cut short by his unexpected death in 1905. Mr.
J. G. Piddington came over from
Britain and a committee was formed to dispose of the material on hand. The reports were filled with intimate and personal data concerning the sitters. They trusted Dr. Hodgson but would not trust anybody else. Finally, over the valiant fight of Prof. Hyslop all these reports were returned to the original sitters and the valuable material was lost. Mrs. Piper remained under the jurisdiction of the
SPR and the sittings were continued under the charge of Prof.
In 1906 Mrs. Piper made a second visit to Britain. It was mainly devoted to elucidate the mystery of cross-correspondences. Several famous investigators (Myers,
Edmund Gurney, Hodgson, etc.) died and communications of an intricate nature were purported to emanate from their surviving spirits. Seventy-four sittings were held with Mrs. Piper. Many others with Mrs. Verral and Mrs. Holland. The result was summed up and analysed by Mr. Piddington. According to his findings the coincidences of thought and expression in the various messages were too numerous and too detailed to be accounted for by chance. In 1909 Prof. James published his report on the Hodgson communications in the
Britain and American SPR Proceedings jointly. He felt the presence of an external will, but could not commit himself. On the Myers, Gurney and Isaac Thompson communications in the same number of
Proceedings Sir Oliver Lodge wrote:
"On the whole they (messages) tend to render certain the existence of some outside intelligence or control, distinct from the consciousness, and, so far as I can judge, from the subconsciousness also, of Mrs. Piper or other mediums. And they tend to render probable the working hypothesis, on which I choose to proceed, that the version of the nature of the intelligences which they themselves present and favour is something like the truth. In other words, I feel that we are in the secondary or tertiary touch - at least occasionally - with some stratum of the surviving personality of the individuals who are represented as sending messages."
All this while it only happened once that aspersions were cast, in public, on Mrs. Piper's character and phenomena. On October 20, 1901, the
New York Herald published a statement of Mrs. Piper, advertised as a confession, in which she was quoted to say that she intended to give up the work she had been doing for the
SPR as fourteen years' work was not enough to clear up the subject and summed up her own views as follows:
"The theory of telepathy strongly appeals to me as the most plausible and genuinely scientific solution of the problem ... I do not believe that spirits of the dead have spoken through me when I have been in the trance state ... It may be that they have, but I do not affirm it."
According to the inquiries made by the editor of
Light Mrs. Piper forbade the publication of the article as soon as she learnt that they advertised it with the word "confession" above it. She received a telegram from the
New York Herald assuring her that the word was used for advertising only and would not appear in the article. On October 25, 1901, Mrs. Piper stated in
The Boston Advertiser:
"I did not make any such statement as that published in the
New York Herald to the effect that spirits of the departed do not control me ... My opinion is to-day as it was eighteen years ago. Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know. I have not changed ... I make no change in my relations."
As Sir Oliver Lodge points out, her honesty was not in question and the
New York Herald spoke of her throughout in laudatory terms;
"since little value would be attached to her opinion in favour of the spiritistic hypothesis, it cannot fairly be urged that her opinion on the other side would weigh with us. Mrs. Piper in fact ... is not in a more favourable, but even in a less favourable position for forming an opinion than those who sit with her, since she does not afterwards remember what passes while she is in trance."
The management of Mrs. Piper's work during 1908-09 was a grave mistake says Mrs. Piper's biographer. Instead of being carried on along systematic and evidential lines it was devoted largely to private and personal sittings of which inadequate or no records were kept. The sitters also undertook to make certain physical tests and experiments of an unwarrantably harsh character. According to Alta L. Piper this had an important share in the temporary withdrawal of power. In October, 1909, Mrs. Piper made her third visit to
Britain. Prostrated by a heavy cold she was not able to give her first two or three sittings before late spring and early summer of 1910. These sittings were supervised by Sir Oliver Lodge. The return from the trance state was very difficult. Both the sitters and the controls were disturbed by the conditions and at a sitting on May 24, 1911, a coming suspension of mediumship was announced. The last sitting was held on July 3. After the appearance of a new control, "Mme. Guyon" it was closed by Imperator. In the years that followed communications by automatic writing remained intermittent but the trance state did not make its appearance until 1915 when the famous Faunus message, relating to the forthcoming death of Sir Oliver Lodge's son,
Raymond was given. Between 1914 and 1924 no regular work was done by Mrs. Piper. The failing health of her mother to whom she was very devoted, made increasing demands upon her time and strength, Further, no suitable supervisor for her work was found. In October, 1924, Dr.
Gardner Murphy conducted a series of sittings at the end of which the
SPR agreed that Mrs. Piper should sit with the Boston SPR during the season of 1926-27. She complied.
Mrs. Piper's work cannot be sufficiently appreciated. For several decades her powers were tested to a degree which no other medium had approximated. Psychical research owes a debt to her which cannot be discharged.
Bibliography: Sage M.: Mrs. Piper and the SPR, 1903; Anna Manning Robbins:
Both Sides of the Veil, 1909; Alta L. Piper. The Life and Work of Mrs.
Source (with minor modifications):
An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).