Monday, May 27, 2019

When the Dead Hold Seances for the Living

I find myself drawn, again and again, into the world of the Victorian spirit hunters, especially that great and eloquent pioneer of psychic research and psychology, Frederic (F.W.H.) Myers, and his famous American friend William James. They joined in a great quest to provide evidence acceptable to science that consciousness can operate outside the body and survives bodily death. They drew to their cause many of the greatest minds of their era, including scientists, physicians, literary giants and a British prime minister.
     There is an amazing moment in one of James's sessions with Leonora Piper, the Boston trance medium James studied and consulted over many years and came to call his "white crow".* She was supposedly communicating on behalf of Richard Hodgson, a great friend of James who had been secretary of the American Society of Psychical Research. Though "tremendously athletic", according to James, Dick Hodgson had died suddenly playing handball, leaving two book projects unfinished - and a half-joking promise that, if he died first, he would communicate from the Other Side and provide evidence of survival.
     James grilled the Hodgson personality over and over, seeking proof positive that it was the dead man talking, through the revelation of personal secrets and codes neither the medium nor the sitter could have known. The demands this approach imposed on Hodgson's memory (assuming it was Hodgson) became ridiculous. Assessing the notes from these long sessions (James conceded) bored him "almost to extinction". 
     But then something will come through that is thrilling even to a skeptical reader more than a century later. Here's what excites me, in the transcript of a "voice-sitting" on May 21, 1906.    Speaking through Mrs Piper, Hodgson tells James that Myers (who died in 1901) is with him:

"Myers and I are also interested in the Society over here. You understand that we have to have a medium on this side while you have a medium on your side, and through the two we communicate with you."

     The "Society" mentioned is the Society for Psychical Research, which was (and is) dedicated to producing evidence of "supernormal" (Myers' phrase) phenomena, including contact between the living and the deceased. Think about the statement made via Mrs. Piper's vocal chords. 
     While there is a Society for Psychical Research on this side, there is a similar Society on the Other Side. They, too, hold seances or sittings with mediums. While James is listening to the voice of his dead friend through a speaker for the dead, Hodgson is apparently listening to the voice of his living friend through a speaker for the living. 
     Was this the ultimate folie de grandeur of a psychic charlatan, promoting her own profession - that of medium - to the status of indispensability on the Other Side? I have a notion that this part of the reading, at least, can be trusted. There are sensitives among us who are more able than others to pick up presences and messages from the Other Side. It's not such a stretch to suppose that in the same way, there are people on the Other Side who are better as inter-world communicators than others, and may even have the ability to call spirits of the living for a session with relatives or colleagues who are eager to talk with them.

*  Having concluded that Mrs Piper's communications were for real, even though the sources could not be determined beyond doubt, William James declared: "If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, it is enough if you prove that one crow is white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper." [William James on Psychical Research edited by Gardner Murphy and Robert O. Ballou. New YorK: The Viking Press, 1960, 41]

Illustration: "The medium Leonora Piper" in Pearson's magazine, vol. 18 no.2 (1907)

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