"It is a tribute to the scientific cautiousness and thoroughness of
[Hodgson] that he so long persisted in the suspense of judgment that
carried him through seven or eight years more investigation before he
would allow himself to confess his belief in the scientific evidence for a
future life." –
H. Hyslop, Ph.D, LL.D.
RICHARD HODGSON is
believed to have been the first full-time, salaried psychical researcher.
During some 20 years of research, Hodgson moved from sceptic and debunker
to a staunch believer in psychic phenomena and survival.
Born in Melbourne, Australia on September 24, 1855 and raised a Methodist,
Hodgson earned his B.A. (1874), LL.B (1875), M.A. (1876) and LL.D (1878)
at the University of Melbourne. He then moved to England, entering the
University of Cambridge as a scholar of St. John's College while studying
Moral Sciences. He apparently chose St. John’s because William Wordsworth,
whose works he admired, had attended the school.
After taking honours in 1881, he began teaching poetry and philosophy at
University Extension. In 1884, he accepted a position at Cambridge as
lecturer on the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. However, according to Alex
Baird, Hodgson's biographer, Hodgson "imbibed enough of an idealistic
philosophy to eliminate the materialistic tendencies of Spenser." Baird
adds that Hodgson was too strong an individualist to follow any
philosopher completely, as “unconsciously he was searching for the Source
and Secret of All Life."
Hodgson was such an individualist and non-conformist that he refused to
accept his degree at the Cambridge ceremony in 1881 because it involved
kneeling before the vice-chancellor. He said he would kneel to no man.
Moreover, while black was the customary evening dress at Cambridge,
Hodgson insisted on wearing an eccentric brown suit.
While attending Cambridge, Hodgson joined an organization called the
Cambridge Society for Psychical Research, which was started in 1879 and
was a forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). He took an
active part in the Society, exposing several fraudulent mediums. When the
SPR was formed in 1882, Hodgson became one of its first members. While
lecturing on Spencer at Cambridge, he was asked by the SPR to travel to
India to investigate the Theosophical Society and its leaders, including
Madame H. P. Blavatasky. After more than four months in India, Hodgson
concluded that Blavatasky was a charlatan. A bitter controversy resulted
from this, the Theosophists claiming that Hodgson did not understand the
physical phenomena resulting from Blavatasky’s mediumship and was too
harsh in his judgment. Upon returning to England Hodgson investigated
several other physical mediums and issued a report that “nearly all the
professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less
in league with one another.”
In 1887, Hodgson moved to Boston to become executive secretary of the
American branch of the SPR (ASPR) and to take over from William James the
Leonore Piper. "During the first few years I absolutely disbelieved in
her power," Hodgson wrote some 12 years into his 18-year investigation of
Piper. "I had but one object, to discover fraud and trickery…of unmasking
her. Today, I am prepared to say that I believe in the possibility of
receiving messages from what is called the world of spirits. I entered the
house profoundly materialistic, not believing in the continuance of life
after death; today I say I believe. The truth has been given to me in such
a way as to remove from me the possibility of a doubt."
As the only full-time employee of the ASPR, Hodgson had hundreds of
sittings with Piper between 1887 and his death in 1905. Initially, he
subscribed to the secondary personality hypothesis. That is,
Phinuit, Piper's spirit control during the early years, was nothing
more than a fragmented personality buried away in her subconscious.
Somehow this fragmented personality was able to read minds and communicate
information that seemed to be coming from discarnate souls.
But Hodgson's attitude began to change in 1892, following the death of
George Pellew, an associate of the ASPR. A member of a prominent New
York family and a Harvard graduate with a law degree, Pellew (given the
pseudonym "George Pelham" for the research records) was a writer and poet.
He authored at least six books, including biographies of statesmen John
Jay and Henry Addington and one on poetry. In February 1892, at the age of
32, Pellew died from injuries suffered in a fall from a horse.
The communication with Pellew caused Hodgson to abandon all other theories
in favor of the spirit hypothesis. While the existence of Phinuit could
not be verified, there was no doubt that Pellew had lived in the flesh.
Moreover, there was too much individuality, too much purpose and
persistence, expressed by Pellew to attribute it to telepathy of a limited
or expanded nature. It was one thing, Hodgson reasoned, for a medium to
tap into another mind or cosmic reservoir for information, quite another
for that other mind or reservoir to come back with the fullness of a
personality rather than just fragmentary bits of information.
“Now in the face of such an occurrence as this (and it does not stand
alone), the talk about subliminal self, in the usual sense, secondary
personality and all that, simply won’t do,” Hodgson reported following a
sitting in which Piper was shown, when coming out of trance, 32
photographs and accurately selected the photo of Pellew as the person who
had taken over her organism. (Piper reported seeing the communicating
spirits exiting her body as she re-entered it following the trance state.)
“We can talk of telopsis here, if we want to, but teleopsis of what? Of
that photograph? Nonsense!”
Rejected by an early love in Australia, Hodgson never married. He lived
the last 20 years of his life in a small Boston apartment, taking most of
his meals at the nearby Tavern Club after spending long hours in his
one-person office at 5 Boylston Place. While he devoted an average three
days a week to studying Mrs. Piper, he investigated many other cases,
including that of the “Watseka Wonder,” which he concluded belonged in the
spiritistic category. “He buried himself in his Charles Street rooms for
work and reading that went into the small hours,” wrote Henry James, the
William James, who took on the task of settling Hodgson’s personal
affairs. “They were inexpensive rooms in a dark street, a small bedroom
and sitting room, but their darkness didn’t matter as he spent little time
in them except at night. I found them full of books and papers, pipes,
tobacco cans, and cheap cigars, for he was a constant smoker.”
Hodgson often joined the James family at their retreat in Chocorua, New
Hampshire. James recalled that his father hated fishing, so Hodgson taught
him and his brothers how to fish. He also swam with them, played
hide-and-seek with them, and amused them with sleight-of-hand tricks.
Having the stereotype of an Australian as a frontiersman and bushranger,
young James remembered wondering if Hodgson was a typical Australian.
“Outwardly, Hodgson didn’t look in the least like a student or scholar,”
James mused. “He was muscular, very light on his feet, had a very sharp
eye which seemed to be noticing everything, and a serene, untroubled
countenance.” James also remembered Hodgson as sometimes humming a tune,
sometimes quoting poetry, and often reading.
Hereward Carrington, another psychical researcher and Hodgson’s close
friend, wrote that during the latter years of his life Hodgson would allow
no one to enter the privacy of his small apartment as he was concerned
that it would upset the “magnetic atmosphere.” According to Carrington,
Hodgson began receiving direct communications from
Imperator and Rector, the spirit controls who succeeded Phinuit and
Pellew and were apparently from a much higher realm than their
predecessors. Hodgson kept these communications a secret because he feared
it would affect his standing as an objective researcher.
In a letter to a friend, Hodgson wrote: “It adds a great deal to life, of
course, to be assured of the nearness and help of particular discarnate
spirits, but, apart from this, there is no necessity for anyone who
believes in God doubting the absolute persistence of the moral order
throughout the whole of existence.”
Eight days after Hodgson’s death, Miss Theodate Pope, who had known
Hodgson, was having a sitting with Mrs. Piper. Rector, Piper’s spirit
control, was using her organism and writing something when the hand
dropped the pencil and started shaking. When the hand steadied itself, it
wrote the letter “H,” after which the point of the pencil was broken. When
a new pencil was placed in Piper’s hand, it wrote “Hodgson.” It started to
write something else, but only rapid scrawls followed.
Rector then took back control of the medium and explained that Hodgson was
there, but that he was too “choked” to write. It wasn’t until another
sitting by Pope five days later that Hodgson communicated again, beginning
with a poem. However, he added that he felt confused and could write no
more. At a third sitting, on January 8, 1906, Hodgson came again and
explained that it was extremely difficult for him to communicate,
suggesting that he had not yet awakened enough or that he had not yet
learned how to handle the “mechanism” (Piper’s body).
On January 23, 1906, Mrs. William James, wife of the renowned Harvard
professor, and William James, Jr. sat with Piper. Hodgson used Piper’s
voice mechanism and said:
“Why, there’s Billy! Is that Mrs. James and Billy? God bless you! Well,
well, this is good! [laughs] I have found my way, I am here, have patience
with me…Where’s William?…I am not strong, but have patience with me…I will
tell you all…”
Hodgson went on to say that he had seen (Frederic)
Myers (pioneering psychical researcher who died in 1901) and wanted
(another psychical researcher, still alive) to know everything. He asked
James Jr. about his swimming and fishing, two activities they had enjoyed
together. He also asked James Jr. if he could give George Dorr (who has
handling his affairs) some instructions about his (Hodgson’s) private
papers. There was much other evidential information indicating that it was
indeed Hodgson communicating. Hodgson closed with a comment that
communication was much more difficult than he had anticipated while alive
and that he now understood why Myers communicated so little.
As the American branch of the SPR was often short of funds, Hodgson did
not always receive his full salary. A wealthy friend sometimes donated
money to make up the deficit. However, it was donated through one of the
ASPR officers with the understanding that Hodgson not know where the money
came from, as the friend did not want Hodgson to in any way feel obligated
to him. When that friend had a sitting with Piper, Hodgson communicated
and thanked him for his support.
Over the next seven or eight months, many people who had known Hodgson had
sittings with Piper. The discarnate Hodgson did his best to provide bits
of information that would allow them to recognize that he was
communicating, and that it was not all some mind-reading game. But as
communicating spirits had indicated to Hodgson when he was alive and
sitting with Piper, it is not all that easy to get information through.
The discarnate Hodgson said that it was very difficult to remember names
and that some earthly memories come and go. Even when he was alive, he was
poor with names and recollections. The fact that he was now operating in a
different realm did not mean that he could remember them any better.
Moreover, there were difficulties in communicating various things through
the medium’s organism.
“I find now difficulties such as a blind man would experience in trying to
find his hat,” Hodgson told Professor William Newbold in a July 23, 1906
sitting. “And I am not wholly conscious of my own utterances because they
come out automatically, impressed upon the machine (Piper’s body)…I
impress my thoughts on the machine which registers them at random, and
which are at times doubtless difficult to understand. I understand so much
better the modus operandi than I did when I was in your world.”
When Newbold asked Hodgson if he could see him, Hodgson replied that he
could but that he could feel his presence better. He added that he stood
behind Newbold and William James as they were discussing him (Hodgson) the
prior week and could hear their conversation. He recalled James saying
that he (Hodgson) was very “secretive and careful.” Newbold said he did
not recall that comment. “I tell you, Billy, he said so,” Hodgson
exclaimed. James later confirmed that he did make such a statement.
When Dr. James Hyslop, another renowned psychical researcher of that era,
sat with Piper, Hodgson asked him if he remembered a conversation when he
(Hodgson) said that if he died first and were able to communicate he would
talk with the fervor of a southern preacher. Hyslop said he did not
remember any such conversation. Hodgson then recalled that it was William
James with whom he had had the conversation. Hyslop later contacted James
to see if such a statement had been made. James confirmed it, although his
recollection was that he made the statement to Hodgson.
Except for the vocal greeting to Mrs. James and her son, the communication
from Hodgson came through Piper’s hand in writing. Rector would often
relay the messages from Hodgson, but there were times when Hodgson took
control himself. James asked Hodgson why it was necessary for Rector to
assist him in the communication so often. Hodgson explained that Rector
better understands the “management of the light.”
When James chided Hodgson on his handwriting, commenting that it was
getting worse, Hodgson asked James if he recalled a time that he (Hodgson)
wrote to him in London, but James found his handwriting so “detestable”
that he had to ask his daughter, Margaret, to read it. James could not
clearly remember it, but his daughter remembered it perfectly.
According to James, who had a number of sittings with Piper when Hodgson
communicated, there was a lively feeling that the personality
communicating, whether Rector or Hodgson, understood the whole situation.
“If you can give up to it, William, and feel the influence of it and the
reality of it, it will take away the sting of death,” Hodgson advised
James concerning his skepticism, adding that James expected too much from
him, as if he should be able to communicate as effectively and coherently
as he could in the body.
Michael E. Tymn
Primary sources: The Life of Richard Hodgson, by Alex Baird
(Psychic Press Limited, London, 1949); On the Cosmic Relations, by
Henry Holt (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914) (both references borrowing
extensively from the records of the Society for Psychical Research);
Both Sides of the Veil, by Anne Manning Robbins (Sherman, French &