THE SPR's great debate over the nature of apparitions occupied the attention of
the Cambridge group from the 1880s well into the 1890s. While an a priori case
for survival could be built on their data, these case studies certainly did not
constitute the type of hard evidence for immortality for which they were
searching. So they began looking in different directions for this evidence. It
was by way of this expanded approach to the survival issue that the SPR founders
were led back to the spiritualist movement, despite their distaste for the fraud
they knew was rife within its ranks. The founders of the SPR had all
investigated spiritualist mediums during their early studies, and they were
ambivalent about their findings. They were encouraged, however, when
James, the brilliant and esteemed Harvard psychologist/philosopher contacted
them in 1885 with stunning news: he claimed to have found a genuine trance
medium through whom he had spoken with his own, purportedly deceased, relatives.
Testimony from such a critically minded source couldn't be ignored, and a new
chapter in parapsychology's search for proof was about to open.
Piper wasn't exactly the picture of a spiritualist wonder-worker. She was a
middle-class and married Bostonian who had lived an eminently normal life. Her
introduction to the spiritualist movement came only after she suffered some
medical problems as a result of an accident. Her father-in-law suggested that
she see a prominent blind clairvoyant in Boston to hear what he would have to
say about possible treatment. It was during her first consultation that
something strange occurred. Mrs Piper later explained that as she sat listening
to the psychic, 'his face seemed to become smaller and smaller, receding as it
were into the distance, until gradually I lost consciousness of my
surroundings'. She had apparently entered into a spontaneous trance, which
surprised her since she had previously entertained no interest in
She started attending some of Dr Cocke's regular sťances anyway, and soon
discovered that she, too, had trance ability. It wasn't long before she was the
talk of the spiritualist community, since during her trances her clients seemed
capable of making contact with their deceased friends and relatives.
 Piper, Alta. The Life and Work of Mrs Piper.
London: Kegan Paul, 1929.
Mrs Piper was only 25 years old at the time and her burgeoning mediumship
probably wouldn't have come to scientific attention at all were it not for a
fortunate development. William James's mother-in-law heard about her, visited
the young psychic, and was so impressed by her performance that she guided
James's attention to her. James and his wife sat with Mrs Piper shortly
thereafter and were astounded by the accurate messages they received.
James attended several sittings with Mrs Piper from 1885 to 1886, and several of
the incidents he witnessed especially impressed him. During one sitting for
example, the psychologist and his brother were told that their aunt (who was
living in New York) had just died that very morning at 12.30. James knew nothing
of the matter but as he later wrote, 'On reaching home an hour later I found a
telegram as follows - Aunt Kate passed away a few minutes after midnight'.
Mrs Leonore Piper was the 'one white crow' who proved spirit communication to
William James satisfaction. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
The SPR was naturally impressed by stories such as
these, so in 1887 they decided to take action. They sent one of their most
critical investigators to Boston to look into the case and report back to them.
Richard Hodgson was a keen and rigidly sceptical investigator but he was also
passionately devoted to psychical research. He set sail for Boston and ended up
spending the next eighteen years of his life studying Mrs Piper's mediumship.
Richard Hodgson came to the United States in part to take over the reins of the
American branch of the SPR, which William James had helped to organize. His
first major project was to take complete charge of the Piper case. His plan was
to book her sittings himself, study her background, and make sure she wasn't
secretly studying her sitters. He even had her trailed by detectives. He also
insisted that many of the sitters he booked remain anonymous to her. Despite
these formidable controls, the quality of the Piper mediumship remained
impressive. She would merely sit down with the client, suffer some minor
convulsions and enter a trance, and soon a curious personality who called
Phinuit' would speak through her and act as master-of-ceremonies for
the session. Hodgson was never much impressed by Dr Phinuit since the persona's
French was practically non-existent and he could never give a very credible
account of his terrestrial life. Phinuit actually seemed to be a split-off
portion of Mrs Piper's own mind, or so Hodgson argued. But despite his dubious
credentials, Dr Phinuit was often brilliant at bringing through veridical
messages from the dead.
Hodgson later reported that at his first sitting at Mrs Piper's home, Dr Phinuit
successfully described and helped bring through some of his own departed
friends. The control especially mentioned an old school friend and called him by
his proper name. 'He says you went to school together,' he explained to Hodgson.
'He goes on jumping-frogs and laughs. He says he used to get the better of you.
He had convulsions before his death struggles. He went off into a sort of spasm.
You were not there.'
All of this rather trivial information was correct, and it alerted Dr Hodgson to
the fact that he was being confronted by a case of epoch-making potential.
The communications that followed the appearance of his old friend impressed him
even more. Hodgson was from Australia and many years before his move to England
he had fallen in love with a young woman. Marriage never entered his life,
however, and the woman passed on long before the time of the present sittings.
Hodgson was astounded when Phinuit began describing the young woman, and she was
able to bring through several deeply personal messages which, more than anything
else, convinced Hodgson of the authenticity of the Piper mediumship.
Despite the startling nature of the evidence, Dr Hodgson was not sure that he
was actually making contact with the dead. It was true that the messages seemed
to be coming from the world of the dead, and he spent months supervising the
sittings of other clients whose personal experiences were leading them to the
same view. Yet like so many of SPR founders, Hodgson found himself grappling
with the same old telepathy versus spirit communication debate that was plaguing
the study of apparitions. It was certainly reasonable to assume that Mrs Piper's
messages came from the dead; but it was also possible that she was reading the
minds of the sitters and gathering up all the pertinent information. He reasoned
that this information could then be used to help build up perfect (but bogus)
personations of the dead. This line of reasoning was tempting since Mrs Pipers
chief control actually seemed to be bogus. It didn't take too much of a leap in
faith and logic to assume that all the spirits that regularly came
through her also had their psychological roots within her own mind. Hodgson at
first actively favoured this view; which he put forth in his first major paper on
 Hodgson, Richard. A record of certain phenomena
of trance. Proceedings: Society for Psychical Research, 1892, 8, 1-67.
He was not the only person to receive such evidential messages, since many of
the sitters he booked in Boston reported similar success. So in order to test Mrs
Piper under even more stringent conditions, Hodgson and his colleagues decided
that she should go to England and sit for the SPR leaders in person. They would
then be in a position to supervise her closely for themselves. The trip would
also allow the researchers to be sure that Mrs Piper was not secretly learning
about her sitters' backgrounds, since she had never visited England before, and
could not have had access to information about them. The sitters in this case
were, of course, the researchers themselves.
Mrs Piper sailed for England in 1889 and was met at the docks by F. W. H. Myers
Oliver Lodge, an influential physicist at the University of Liverpool and
one of the SPR's leading lights. They carefully controlled every move she made
and even, with her consent, opened her mail to make sure no one as 'feeding' her
information. Despite these incumbrances, she gave sťances for the SPR both in
Liverpool and Cambridge with outstanding success.
It would be impossible to go into great detail about these important sittings.
Lodge was perhaps the most impressed with Mrs Piper, partly due to his own
experiences with her. The following is a report Lodge filed about a single
incident that occurred during one of his first sittings. Remember that this is
actually just one episode which occurred during a more lengthy session:
 Myers, F. W. H.; Lodge, Oliver; Leaf, W.; James,
William. A record of observations of certain phenomena of trance. Proceedings:
Society for Psychical Research, 1890, 6, 436-659.
It happens that an uncle of mine in London, now
quite an old man, and one of a surviving three out of a very large family, had a
twin brother who died some twenty or more years ago. I interested him generally
in the subject, and wrote to ask if he would lend me some relic of his brother.
By morning post on a certain day I received a curious old gold watch, which this
brother had worn and been fond of, and that same morning, no one in the house
having seen it or knowing anything about it, I handed it to Mrs Piper when in a
state of trance.
I was told almost immediately that it had belonged to one of my uncles - one
that had been very fond of Uncle Robert, the name of the survivor - that the
watch was now in possession of this same Uncle Robert, with whom he was anxious
to communicate. After some difficulty and many wrong attempts Dr Phinuit caught
the name, Jerry, short for Jeremiah, and said emphatically, as if a third person
was speaking, 'This is my watch, and Robert is my brother, and I am here. Uncle
Jerry, my watch'...
Having thus ostensibly got into communication through some means or other with
what purported to be a deceased relative, whom I had indeed known slightly in
his later years of blindness, but of whose early life I knew nothing, I pointed
out to him that to make Uncle Robert aware of his presence it would be well to
recall trivial details of their boyhood, all of which I would faithfully report.
He quite caught the idea, and proceeded during several successive sittings
ostensibly to instruct Dr Phinuit to mention a number of little things such as
would enable his brother to recognise him ...
'Uncle Jerry' recalled episodes such as swimming the creek when they were boys
together; and running some risk of getting drowned; killing a cat in Smiths
field; the possession of a small rifle, and of a long peculiar skin, like a
snake-skin, which he thought was not in the possession of Uncle Robert.
All these facts have been more or less completely verified.
The only problem with evidence such as this is that
Mrs Piper liked to hold the hands of her sitters. It was suggested by some
sceptics that somehow the sitter might be communicating information to the
psychic by making unconscious and subtle muscular movements. This idea was
especially championed by
Andrew Lang, an early SPR member and a pioneering
anthropologist and folklorist. He engaged Lodge in a prolonged debate over this
issue in the SPR's publications. Lang was sceptical of Mrs Piper, but even he
finally admitted that the 'snake-skin' reference cited above was just too good
to be dismissed.
Several of the Society's leaders were able to work with Mrs Piper during her
trip. They filed a joint report on their work with her in which they came to
four main conclusions: (1) that there was no reason to suspect Mrs Piper's good
faith or honesty (2) that Dr Phinuit was probably a secondary personality of the
psychic's own mind, (3) that he often 'faked' his way through some of the
sittings, but that (4) on a good day he could bring through voluminous amounts
of highly evidential material. The SPR researchers would not, however, commit
themselves as to whether these messages emanated from the dead. This was an
issue on which they were hopelessly divided. Sir Oliver Lodge preferred this
theory to any other about the source of Mrs Piper's communications, but the
telepathic hypothesis loomed far and wide and some researchers favoured it.
Even though the SPR could not agree about the source of Mrs Piper's
communications, its leaders did not cease studying her formidable abilities. She
returned to Boston in 1890 where she once again worked under Hodgson's auspices.
Although the reasons were not clear, it now seemed that the quality of her
mediumship was improving. Some of her sittings were so impressive that the
telepathic hypothesis had to be stretched widely to account for them. This was
certainly the opinion of the Revd and Mrs S. W. Sutton, who first attended
sittings with Mrs Piper in 1893. Their hope was to establish communication
with their little daughter Katherine, who had died only six weeks before. The
Suttons were intelligent people and they brought along a note-taker supplied by
Dr Hodgson, so today we still have a complete stenographic record of what
transpired during their critical sitting of 8 December. This was an occasion on
which several departed members of the Sutton family spoke through Mrs Piper,
including their daughter. The sitting is so crucial to understanding the
psychology of the Piper mediumship that an edited version of the sitting is
 Hodgson, Richard. A further record of
observations of certain phenomena of trance. Proceedings: Society for
Psychical Research, 1898, 284-582.
This sťance began as Mrs Piper took hold of the note-taker's hands. Her trance
followed in short order and then Mrs Sutton took the psychic's hands in her own.
It didn't take the enigmatic Dr Phinuit very long before he was able to bring
through her daughter. He almost began the sitting with the words, 'A little
child is coming through'. The Suttons could then hear the control coaxing the
child to come to him, and he spoke as if he were their daughter. This was
typical of the control, who often proxied in this manner. He reached for a medal
and a band of buttons that the Suttons had placed on the sťance table, and then
I want this - I want to bite it.
Quick, I want to put them in my mouth ...
Mrs Sutton's Annotations
She used to bite it.
The buttons also. To bite the buttons was forbidden. He exactly imitated
her arch manner.
I will get her talk to you in a minute. Who is Frank
in the body?...
We do not know. My uncle Frank died a few years before. We were much
attached. Possibly Phinuit was confused and my uncle was trying to
A lady is here who passed out of the body with
tumour in the bowels ...
||My friend, Mrs C.
died of ovarian tumour.
She has the child ... She is bringing it to me. Who
is Dodo? Speak to me quickly. I want you to call Dodo. Tell Dodo I am
happy. Cry for me no more [Phinuit puts his hands to his throat.] No more
sore throat any more Papa, speak to me. Can not you see me? I am not dead,
I am living. I am happy with Grandma. [Phinuit now speaks for himself:]
Here are two more. One, two, three here ... one older and one younger than Kakie. That is a boy. The one that came first. The little one calls the
lady, Auntie I wish you could see these children. [Addressing Mr Sutton,
to whom he turns:] You do a great deal of good in the body [To Mrs
Sutton:] He is a dear man. Was this little ones tongue very dry? She keeps
showing me her tongue. Her name is Katherine. She calls herself Kakie. She
passed out last. Tell Dodo Kakie is in spiritual body. Where is horsey? Big
horsey, not this little one. Dear Papa, take me wide [to ride]. [Speaking
for Katherine:] Do you see Kakie? The pretty white flowers you put on me I
have here. I took their little souls out and keep them with me. Papa, want
to wide horsey. Every day I go to see horsey. I like that horsey. I go to
wide I am with you every day ...
The name for her brother George.
She had pain and distress of the throat and tongue.
My mother had been dead many years.
Both were boys.
Not her aunt.
Her tongue was paralysed, and she suffered much with it to the end.
I gave her a little horse. Probably refers to a toy cart and horse she
used to like.
Phinuit describes lilies of the valley, which were the flowers we placed
on her casket. She pleaded this all through her illness.
I was so hot, my head was so hot.
I asked if she remembered anything after she was
Some further messages were received and Kakie
referred to her sister Eleanor by name. Then, to the Sutton's great surprise,
the communicator begin singing a song that was sung to her before she died. The
little communicator urged her parents to sing along with her, and the couple
complied. While they were singing they could hear a soft, childlike voice coming
out of the psychic's mouth and intoning the precise words with them. Two stanzas
were sung before the sitting could progress. Then the child sang yet another
song she had known in life through the entranced medium. It actually seemed as
if the child was talking directly through Mrs Piper and was no longer using the
control as a proxy. What so impressed the Suttons was that these two songs were
the only two the child knew completely. Phinuit seemed to re-insert himself at
this point, and the sitting continued:
Where is Dinah? I want Dinah.
Mrs Sutton's Annotations
Dinah was an old black rag-doll, not with us.
I want Bagie.
I want Bagie to bring me my Dinah. I want to go to Bagie. I want Bagie. I
see Bagie an the time. Tell Dodo when you see him that I love him. Dear
Dodo. He used to march with me. He put me way up.
Her name for her sister Margaret.
Dodo did sing to me. That was a horrid body. I have a
pretty body now. Tell Grandma I love her. I want her to know I live. Grandma
does know it, Marmie - Great grandma, Marmie.
We called her Great Grandmother Marmie, but
she always called her Grammie. Both Grandmother and Great
Grandmother were then living.
With evidence such as this pouring in, Dr Hodgson
found himself doubting the idea that telepathy could explain Mrs Piper's
utterances. Even the somewhat questionable but crudely lovable Dr Phinuit began
proving himself a bit. But it wasn't until one of Hodgson's own friends died and
began communicating through Mrs Piper that he finally changed his entire verdict
about the Piper mediumship. This new development came in 1892 during a crucial
stage in the mediumship.
Before 1892 the Piper mediumship was characterized by two features. She always
delivered her messages by trance speech and her transition to the trance state
was accompanied by fits and spasms. This was the stage of the mediumship
dominated by Dr Phinuit's ever-present personality, much to the chagrin of those
researchers who considered him nothing but a sub-personality of the medium's.
But in 1892 Mrs Piper began developing (under Hodgson's guidance) automatic
writing which soon superseded the trance speech. The transition to the trance
state also became gentler and more facile during this period. The real change in
the trance state came, however; with the appearance of a new trance-personality
who replaced Dr Phinuit as the psychic's primary control. George Pellew (whom
Hodgson called 'George Pelham' throughout his writings on the case) was a young and
philosophically minded friend of the researcher's. He had sat with Mrs Piper
himself once before his death and long remained intrigued with the problems of
trance mediumship. His death came in 1892 as a result of an accident, and it
wasn't long before he started communicating through Mrs Piper. He soon took
control of the Piper trance state altogether.
The appearance of the Pelham control also heralded a new dimension in the
quality of the mediumship. It became more focused and consistently evidential.
Hodgson also used the Pelham persona to test the possible spiritistic basis of
the entire mediumship. During the next several months, he introduced 150 sitters
to the sťances, of whom 30 had known Pelham during his life. The Pelham control
was able to accurately recognize 29 of them. His only lapse came when he failed
to recognize a young woman he had only known as a child. Most of the sitters
were able to talk and reminisce with the Pelham personality as though he were
right there in the flesh, and the quality of his many trance conversations was
certainly equal to that of the Sutton sittings. Hodgson was so impressed by this
new personality that he issued another report on Mrs Piper in 1898 in which he
outlined his reasons for converting to the spiritistic theory.
The subsequent history of the Piper mediumship is no less imposing or dramatic.
She underwent several more changes in control, and when Dr Hodgson died suddenly
in 1905, he subsequently communicated through her Mrs Piper's mediumship began
to deteriorate in 1911 and she lost her trance state altogether, though the
automatic writing continued for several more years. She held sittings well into
the 1920s and died in 1950.
Perhaps it seems by now that the entire case for survival could be based on the
Piper mediumship. Even with such high evidential quality, though, some of the
SPR old guard were still sceptical of the spiritistic hypothesis. For example,
several of her 'communicators' still turned out to be fictional characters and
even the most credible communicators - who should have known better - supported
the legitimacy of the blatantly fictitious ones. Even the highly regarded Pelham
personality could not discuss philosophical issues very well through Mrs Piper;
despite the fact that the subject was very close to his heart when he was alive.
It was in hopes of clarifying some of these problems that the SPR was always on
the lookout for new and gifted trance mediums. This development was certainly
fortuitous in one respect, since many of the original SPR founders were
beginning to pass on. It was now up to a second generation of researchers to
continue with their work.
Next part (5): Cross-correspondences
More parts to this article:
Part 1: The Case of James Kidd
Part 2: The Foundations of Survival Research
Part 3: Apparitions and the Case for Survival
Part 4: Mediumship and the Case for Survival (current page)
Part 5: Cross-correspondences
Part 6: New Developments in Research on Mediumship
D. Scott Rogo's "Life After Death. The Case
for Survival of Bodily Death" (London: Guild Publishing, 1986).